Andy Murray’s reward for his stunning five-set comeback in the first round of the United States Open was a showdown Thursday night with one of the most talented young players in the world. Felix Auger-Aliassime, a 20-year-old from Canada, may be the sport’s next big thing, a player with speed, power, explosiveness and the deft touch of a natural shotmaker.
Auger-Aliassime is also the No. 15 seed here. In a year that Murray is staging a comeback from hip replacement surgery, the tennis pride of Britain would not normally face someone as good as Auger-Aliassime until the second week of the tournament, but the coronavirus pandemic shook up the field. And that, perhaps more than the physical constraints of an artificial hip, or life in a restrictive conditions, or having to wash his hands a lot and wear a mask or any of the other inconveniences of life during coronavirus is what makes mounting a comeback in this year of years especially difficult.
“A top, top young player,” Murray said of Auger-Aliassime after outlasting Yoshihito Nishioka 4-6, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4), 6-4 in a four hour, 39 minute match Tuesday. “He’s a fantastic mover, good athlete. He’s developed fast.”
What Murray is about to face is a challenge that felled former world No. 1 Kim Clijsters in the first official match of her pandemic-timed comeback, at 37, after her second retirement, her third child, and eight years removed from her last attempt at a return to the sport. In her first round match Tuesday night, Clijsters lost to the No. 21 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova of Russia. Alexandrova, a 25-year-old veteran with a powerful serve and more than $2 million in career winnings, was shaky early but then overpowered the powerful Clijsters 3-6, 7-5, 6-1.
“It’s been a strange year,” said Clijsters, who is winless in three matches in 2020. “When I started in Dubai and Monterrey, I was excited to play more tournaments, have the family travel with me. But that obviously didn’t happen.”
With the pandemic forcing lockdowns throughout much of the world, many players struggled for months to find open courts and hitting partners. There was World Team Tennis and a few random exhibitions earlier in the summer but the women’s and men’s tours didn’t return to action until August.
The layoff has left everyone rusty. Even the top players have freely acknowledged the quality of tennis so far at the U.S. Open and at the Western & Southern Open last week has been fairly uninspiring.
The lack of competition, and such a quick re-entry into Grand Slam tennis, has made for an especially tall task for Murray and Clijsters, robbing them of the opportunity for easier wins against lesser competition at low-profile tournaments, something nearly every player attempting a comeback seeks in order to gain confidence, get used to the inimitable experience of competition and collect rankings points.
A comeback in tennis is not like a comeback in baseball, where a manager can insert a player into the lineup each night. Tennis players only get to compete and play more matches if they win, something that is a lot more likely to happen starting off at lesser tournaments than in this baptism by fire.
And while confidence and match experience are important, ranking points are crucial because the biggest reward that comes with them is a seed at a major tournament, and seeded players, especially those in the top 16, usually do not face the stiffest competition until the second week of a Grand Slam.
When Andre Agassi slipped away from tennis in 1997 and fell to No. 141 in the world rankings, he began his comeback with so-called Challenger events in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. The Challenger tournaments are the minor leagues of tennis, events for players who are outside the top 50. They often do not have electronic scoreboards or many fans.
Over the course of six months, beginning with the Las Vegas tournament and then in a series of lesser tour events, Agassi sharpened his game and his ranking climbed to No. 22.
Darren Cahill, the ESPN commentator who coached Agassi in the early 2000s, said Murray would use the matchup with Auger-Aliassime as an opportunity to measure himself against a high-quality opponent, just as he did when he beat Alexander Zverev last week during the Western & Southern Open.
“Draws are draws, and tennis players accept that,” Cahill said. “The big thing is going to be the five sets, and whether his body is ready to come back from that and maybe do it again.”
Before this U.S. Open, Clijsters had played just two tournaments and lost in the first round of each. In July, she traveled to West Virginia to compete in World Team Tennis and tried to play as much as she could, taking on singles, doubles and mixed-doubles matches.
Over the course of the three-week season, she said she could feel her timing and ability to anticipate the next shot return. Then a strained abdominal muscle forced her to pull out of the Western & Southern Open, and then came her late Tuesday night showdown with Alexandrova, a player she had only seen on video.
There were moments against Alexandrova when it was all there, the clean hitting, the lethal, relentless ball striking, the deceptively powerful first serve, even a few of Clijsters’s signature splits as she stretched for forehands. Early on, Clijsters looked like she might cruise through, before the quality of Alexandrova emerged.
“The third set, I felt like she was just seeing the ball very well, just hitting her targets all the time,” Clijsters said of Alexandrova.
While Murray was able to survive the Nishioka marathon, how will his body respond later? The nearly five-hour match made a mess of his toes, left him sore all over and had him desperate for an ice bath, but he had played some of his best tennis in the final games, pounding his flat, two-handed backhand, and ripping forehand winners. Physically, he had met the test.
“Tennis-wise I could do better,” he said.
He will likely have to, even though his opponent can remember buying tickets to the 2011 U.S. Open, when he was 11, and watching Murray play a night match against Feliciano Lopez.
For this match, which is also scheduled for night, Auger-Aliassime, will have a much different perspective as he walks onto the court as a favorite against a former world No. 1 still trying to find his form and having to do it on one of the biggest stages far earlier than he might have expected.
“I don’t want to put into my head or consider that because of the injuries or because of the surgeries he’s had, the comeback he’s made, that this puts me in an advantage or makes a difference on the outcome of the match,” Auger-Aliassime said of Murray. “I’m going to prepare myself for a battle. I’m going to expect the best from him.”