At the beginning of this long and unpredictable summer, Andy Murray and Matteo Berrettini stared each other down in the final of Stuttgart. For two sets, they went blow for blow as equals, with high quality tennis from all sides.
But those hopeful early days of June made way for gloom. Out of nowhere, Murray pulled his abdominal muscle and was hindered throughout the third set. After following up Stuttgart by winning Queen’s, on the eve of Wimbledon Berrettini contracted Covid and withdrew.
Both players arrived for their US Open third round still searching to rediscover their form, and in the end it was Berrettini who found it, withstanding a late surge from Murray. He paired his nuclear serve and forehand with sweet, delicate touches around the court, breaking down Murray to reach the fourth round with a 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(1) 6-3 win.
Having contested the first third round of a grand slam for just the second time since he was ranked No 1, Murray departed Ashe with mixed feelings. On one hand, he was disappointed by aspects of his performance, particularly his serving for large parts of the match, but he expressed his pride at his continued achievements.
“I’ve got a metal hip,” said Murray. “It’s not easy playing with that. It’s really difficult. I’m surprised I’m still able to compete with guys that are right up at the top of the game.
“Matches like this I’m really proud that I have worked myself into a position where I’m able to do that. I’m really disappointed that I didn’t get over the line today. But I get reminded like this is the first time you’ve made the third round here since 2016. It’s been six years. It’s been a difficult six years for me. It’s been really hard.”
Throughout this week, Murray has expressed deep satisfaction about how his body is dealing with the constant strain of professional tennis. His improved physicality was reflected in his movement, which he demonstrated early on by flicking a one-handed backhand passing shot, then a sweet forehand lob enroute to an early break point at 3-2.
But then Berrettini took over. Berrettini possesses one of the biggest serve and forehand combinations in the world, which he combines with a sweet drop shot, hand skills and particularly great backhand slice.
Murray’s break point was erased by a thunderous serve from Berrettini, then the Italian served flawlessly for the remainder of the set. He paired his punishing weapons, which pushed Murray far behind the baseline, with a constant stream of delicate forehand drop shots as he gradually established a two set lead.
As Berrettini pushed to finish the job in straight sets, he generated eight break points on Murray’s serve. But Murray will always fight. He saved each break point, including a 0-40 hole at 5-5, and then he breezed through the third set tiebreak as Berrettini’s forehand faltered. Murray tried to run with the momentum at the beginning of the fourth set, generating an early break point, but Berrettini held on and then re-established control to win.
As his grand slam season comes to an end, Murray leaves New York with mixed feelings. His poor serving for two sets, with low first serve percentage and double faults on decisive on decisive break points in both sets, handicapped him in the biggest moments.
But a loss to such a quality player is no great shame. Given his circumstances at this point in his career, his third round stands as a very good tournament. It is only the second time he has reached the third round at a grand slam tournament since he was ranked No1 in 2017. He played well, taking out No 27 Francisco Cerundolo, and he is now around 43rd in the rankings.
“Although it’s the first time I’ve only made the third round here, I’m really proud of that effort that I put into to get myself back into these positions,” he said.
“So I’m hoping that in the future I can go further, but considering, I did all right.”
There have been times in recent years when Murray has competed well with the top players yet left the court frustrated. This time though, after a tough summer with his abdominal strain and cramping issues, he was hopeful.
“I want to push and see how far I can go. That will be motivational for me and interesting to see, because lots of people told me I wouldn’t be able to play again, and lots of people told me I’d be able to hit tennis balls but not compete professionally again. That was nonsense, and I want to see how close I can get back to the top of the game,” he said.
For Berrettini, his recent struggles are only one part of a desperately unlucky season. He started the year with his third grand slam semi-final in Australia, yet he was then sidelined for nearly three months after undergoing hand surgery. At this time in men’s tennis when opportunities are starting to open up at the biggest tournaments, he intends to be one of the main protagonists and he is on the right path again.
In the women’s draw, fifth seed Ons Jabeur recovered from a set and a break down to reach the fourth round with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 win over 31st seed Shelby Rogers. She will face Veronika Kudermetova next, who defeated Dalma Galfi 6-2, 6-0 in 47 minutes.