Defeat is never easy to take but there were plenty of positives for Andy Murray to ponder as the 31-year-old Scot went out of the US Open here on Wednesday. Fernando Verdasco won their second-round match 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4, but the way that Murray fought over three hours and 23 minutes in brutally hot conditions brought a reminder of what a fierce competitor he can be.
Until he arrived at Flushing Meadows to play his first Grand Slam tournament for nearly 14 months Murray had played only seven matches since starting his comeback following hip surgery, all of them over the best of three sets. Having beaten James Duckworth in the first round, the former world No 1 fought toe-to-toe with one of the game’s most seasoned competitors before Verdasco’ durability and thunderous ball-striking proved decisive.
If Murray’s opening victory had been workmanlike, there were more signs of the Scot’s brilliance here. He hit some huge winners from both flanks and defended superbly, his athleticism demonstrated perfectly when he won a 26-shot rally – the longest of the tournament so far – in only the fourth game of the match.
If Murray looked exhausted by the end that was no surprise given that the match was played in 36C heat and 44 per cent humidity. For the second day in a row the tournament implemented its new heat rule, which gave the players a 10-minute break between the third and fourth sets, but by that stage they had already been playing for more than two and a quarter-hours.
Murray had won 13 of his previous 14 matches against Verdasco, but given the Scot’s current situation these were very different circumstances to any of their past meetings.
Verdasco can be one of the most unpredictable opponents. The 34-year-old Spaniard has a monstrous forehand, is capable of hitting breath-taking winners from almost anywhere on the court and remains a very good athlete, as he showed in chasing down several drop shots. However, his shot selection can be questionable and he makes plenty of errors.
Years ago Murray’s natural inclination might have been to defend and allow the Verdasco whirlwind to blow itself out, but with his current physical condition he now knows that he needs to shorten points as often as possible. On Verdasco’s second serve, for example, Murray repeatedly moved forward inside the baseline to attack, which often seemed to unsettle the Spaniard.
The match started just before 3.30pm during the hottest part of the day. The conditions were testing in the extreme, though the players must have been grateful that the playing area was in shade. Although the stadium was probably three-quarters full, almost all the seats that were exposed to the sun were deserted. Murray received a time violation before the match had even begun. Umpires are under strict instruction to enforce the rules about starting on time and Murray had not hit his first serve before his “one-minute warning” had expired.
Verdasco drew first blood, breaking serve in the third game during a sequence in which the Spaniard won nine points out of 10, only for Murray to respond by winning the next seven points. Murray broke for 2-2 and again to lead 4-2 as Verdasco double-faulted on break point. By the time Verdasco broke again for 4-3 there had been four breaks of serve in the first seven games.
Murray had a set point when Verdasco served at 4-5, but the Spaniard saved it with an ace and then broke in the following game on a double fault. Verdasco saved a break point with a forehand winner when he served for the set at 6-5 and 30-40 and then took the next two points in similar fashion.
Having been so close to winning the first set it must have been frustrating for Murray to lose it after 62 minutes, but his response could not be faulted. The Scot got the better of three successive breaks in the middle of the second set, which he won with a further break of serve. A winning volley took Murray to set point and a Verdasco double fault did the rest.
In the third set, however, it was Verdasco who set the pace, breaking serve in the first and fifth games. Murray launched a spirited comeback, retrieving one break of serve with some wonderful attacking shots, but Verdasco served out for the set to go into the break holding a crucial two-sets-to-one advantage.
After they returned to the court Murray told his entourage: “I need all your support.” The Scot held on until he was broken to love at 3-3 as Verdasco turned on the power. By now Murray appeared to be struggling with his movement and there were signs of the limp that had become so obvious before he opted for hip surgery.
Fernando Verdasco eventually proved too good for Andy Murray (Getty Images)
Serving to stay in the match at 3-5, nevertheless, Murray recovered from 0-30 down to win the game. He then had five points to break back when Verdasco served for the match, only for the Spaniard to save them with a combination of some potent serving and bold attacking play.
On his first match point Verdasco hit a forehand wide under attack from Murray and on his second the Scot won the rally with a huge forehand to the corner, but on the third Murray netted a service return. The final game had lasted 12 minutes. Murray may have lost it, but this showed how his defiance appears to be as strong as ever.
Just a few minutes after Murray’s defeat, the last British player left in singles, Cameron Norrie, also went out of the tournament when he was beaten 6-2, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 by Dusan Lajovic.