For Murray, just returning to the ATP was a positive step forward. After last year’s comeback culminated in a cathartic title in Antwerp, he was forced to miss the first three months of the new season due to a pelvic injury stemming from complications with his replaced hip. Just as he returned to practice and was in the process of rejoining the tour in March, the tour shut down.
Murray says he has spent much of the past 10 months of his training simply practising only three days a week on-court for 90 minutes, with most of the focus on rehab and strengthening his hip until a few days before he arrived in New York. “I’ve done more [gym] in these last four months than I probably have in my career.”
Throughout the match, Tiafoe was as unpredictable and impulsive as usual, throwing in drop shots and random forays to the net, determined to follow his whims rather than any coherent plan. It can be wildly entertaining, but he so often overplays and hits himself off the court.
After thriving in the first set, holding serve throughout and avoiding a single break point, Tiafoe took the upper hand in the tie-break and rolled into a 5-2 lead.
But as he moved towards securing the first set, it was at that exact moment that his game fell apart. Murray did what he normally does, remaining solid in the tight moments, sweeping up the errors he elicited and then slipping a slick forehand passing shot to secure the first set.
As Murray felt the weight of the 70-minute opening set, he lost the power in his legs and the pace of his shots slowed throughout the second. Tiafoe took advantage, responding with a solid performance to strike back and level the match, breaking Murray and holding for the second set.
But as a new page turned, Murray ramped himself up to begin the third set and refused to miss. Tiafoe was errant.
In his pre-match press conference, Murray noted that after nine months away, even just practising with the best players again after so long was a large adjustment and another step up. His recent comebacks have taught him to lower his expectations.
“I know the tennis will come but it’s not gonna come back immediately, so it’s just not to expect straight off the bat to be playing perfect. For example, in the first set today the tie-break was a bad level. It was not good tennis, in my opinion. But I got through it and I didn’t get too down on myself and I didn’t expect to play unbelievable today. I spoke with my coach the last couple of days and he was saying to me: ‘You’re good enough to win matches even when you’re not feeling good and to remember that sometimes.’”
After such intermittent play over the past few years, the aim should simply be to play as many matches as he can. He will get a particular opportunity to see how his body reacts when he faces the world No 7, Alexander Zverev, in the second round.
“There isn’t really an atmosphere, to be honest with you,” he said of the atmosphere that will greet him on Wednesday and beyond. “So that’s obviously a little bit tricky. I know it’s a bit cliche but you need to create your own atmosphere on the court but it’s not quite the same and, I said in my interview after the match that it’s pretty hot, tough conditions.
“In difficult moments, the crowd being there maybe helps you focus a little more and sometimes gives you that little extra boost in terms of your energy or your concentration and that’s not there and it’s certainly different in that respect.”
Elsewhere, Heather Watson lost 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 to Bernarda Pera as she struggled to handle the American’s hefty weight of shot.
Watson had entered lockdown in some of the best form of her career, having returned to the top 50 following her fourth career WTA title in Acapulco.
However, she has struggled in her first two matches back after losing 6-2, 6-1 to the eventual champion, Jennifer Brady, in Lexington. She will have a week in the New York bubble to prepare for the US Open. Cameron Norrie and Kyle Edmund were also defeated on the opening day in New York.
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