Not even 99 unforced errors off the racket of Nikoloz Basilashvili, coupled with a quite astonishing shank of a serve, could loosen Andy Murray into winning this the easy way. It is a hallmark of late-period Murray that even first-round victories against flaky opponents are plotted via the scenic route, with wrenching gear changes galore.
His weapons might have been blunted by a catalogue of injuries and surgeries, but at almost 35 he has lost none of his gifts for dramatic scripting, finally dispatching the Australian Open’s 21st seed in five wildly undulating sets.
For all the histrionics en route, Murray deserved to savour this result as deeply as any other he has achieved on the Melbourne stage. To vanquish the world No 23 after three hours and 52 minutes of draining, see-sawing theatre was as emphatic a testament to his tenacity as could be imagined.
This was his best win by ranking since the 2017 French Open quarter-finals, when he defeated Kei Nishikori. It marked a stirring moment in a resurgence that many believed would never happen.
Let us not forget, it was here at Melbourne Park that he bid his emotional farewells in 2019, explaining that the pain in his hip had become intolerable and watching lachrymose video montages about his career play out in the background. But here he was once more, a man of unbreakable self-belief. The opening remark from the on-court announcer as he sank back in his chair was telling: “Welcome back, Andy.”
Murray had every reason to fear Basilashvili, among the tour’s most mercurial talents, blessed with easy power and yet remarkably error-prone whenever he tries to pull the trigger. It was this haplessness from which Murray ultimately profited. He never looked like overwhelming the Georgian from the baseline, but minimised his mistakes just enough to ensure that Basilashvili veered into self-sabotage.
Murray magic ✨@andy_murray outlasts Nikoloz Basilashvili 6-1, 3-6, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-4 after nearly four hours of tennis!#AusOpen · #AO2022
🎥: @wwos · @espn · @Eurosport · @wowowtennis pic.twitter.com/lr9xMN8f9M
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 18, 2022
Not even a bizarre chorus of “siu” chants – made famous by Cristiano Ronaldo, and which Murray described as “incredibly irritating” – could distract him. At times, his defensive play was wondrous, an exhibition of desperate retrievals and improbable lobs. It was captivating to watch, although one could only guess at the physical toll on a player with a metal hip.
Clearly emotional after collecting his thoughts, Murray, drawn to face Japanese qualifier Taro Daniel next, acknowledged that he drew energy from his doubters.
“A lot of those people, they don’t see what it is you do on a daily basis, they don’t see how much you want to win and just make throwaway comments,” he said. “I’ve beaten some b----- good players. I do find that motivating and always have. If someone suggests I won’t be able to do something, I use it as motivation.”
This is the dilemma for Murray: for all that he still has a fighting chance of winning ATP titles, as he proved by his run to last week’s final in Sydney at Basilashvili’s expense, the pressures of best-of-five tennis are demonstrably taking a brutal toll. Several times, he had to pause to take a breath here on John Cain Arena, crouched over in exhaustion after contriving another pirouetting return with the ball behind him. The resolve is hugely impressive, but the cumulative strain is plain to see.
At this stage, it is starting to look masochistic, this determination to prolong his career even when his potential for winning major titles has almost certainly expired. And yet his thirst for adrenalin is inexhaustible. Just when you feared he might fold after losing the fourth-set tie-break, he roused himself in the fifth with greater depth on his groundstrokes.
In many ways, this was a match devoid of any internal logic. You would hardly have anticipated that Murray, after racing through the opening set in 23 minutes, would be lured into a slugfest lasting nearly four hours. Basilashvili was abject at first, listless in attitude and woefully errant in execution.
His struggles were no more neatly captured than when he limbered up for a second serve in the third game, missing the point of impact by such a margin that the ball skied off the frame into the stands.
It was a staggering miscue from a player of his standard. Basilashvili might have been No 1 in ball speed off both the forehand and backhand wings last year, but he was No 1 for brain-fades here, routinely flunking attempted winners halfway up the net. Only in the second set did he seem to remember that he was playing a wildcard, moving Murray expertly from side to side to subdue some boisterous Scottish support in the crowd.
Not that Murray was about to be easily cowed. A remarkable break of serve for 3-2 in the third encapsulated his spirit, as somehow he prevailed in a succession of gruelling rallies, pinned back as he waited for Basilashvili to lose patience. Come the fourth, the momentum only seemed to be flowing in one direction, the younger man finding his rage while the bionic veteran visibly tired.
But any critics should surely know better now than to regard his demise as a fate foretold. Breaking Basilashvili one final time at 5-4 in the fifth, he raised his arms slowly through the air, as if he had come through 12 rounds of a heavyweight prizefight. Which, in a manner of speaking, he had. This was a product of three years of Murray believing, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he still had one more encore left to conjure.