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Saturday, January 28, 2023

Andy Murray outlasts Thanasi Kokkinakis at Australian Open

There are fewer agonies as tortuous to witness in sports as watching a tennis player play splendidly to go up two sets to none in a best-of-five set Grand Slam match, then slowly, point by point, fritter it all away and lose.

By contrast, there are few performances as exhilarating to watch as a tennis player falling behind by two sets to none, then storming back, shaking off the obvious temptation to pack it in, to win what usually becomes a marathon match.

As must always be the case is such instances, both happened in the wee hours of Thursday morning in Melbourne at the Australian Open in an exhausting, fascinating battle of wills between 35-year-old Andy Murray and Thanasi Kokkinakis of Australia. The match, featuring superb tennis, lasted an extraordinary five hours and 45 minutes and ended after 4 a.m. local time, statistics that would be viewed as ridiculous if they were applied to almost any other individual sport.

That neither player is ranked in the top 60 on the planet — the multi-Grand Slam winner Murray is now 66th, Kokkinakis is 159th — certainly didn’t undermine the epic nature of the contest. Indeed, the stories of how they each got to where they are now made for a fabulous narrative. This tournament effectively retired Murray back in 2019 as he faced left hip surgery that most assumed was career ending, and the 26-year-old Kokkinakis has been mostly a frosted tips poster boy for youthful talent squandered.

Murray ended up the exhilarated player when all was said and done in this 4-6, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5), 6-3, 7-5 contest, while Kokkinakis was left wallowing in the agony.

“This effing sport, man,” tweeted Kokkinakis afterwards.

It was the longest match Murray had ever played in his terrific career by 38 minutes, and it was the 11th time he had come back from a two-sets-to-none deficit, more than any other active player. He was actually down two sets and a break, and after previously winning another marathon match in five sets two days earlier, it seemed unlikely he would do it again.

Kokkinakis, always talented but often as quasi-committed to his sport as his wingman Nick Kyrgios — though the two combined to win this tournament in the men’s doubles competition a year ago — rained ace after ace down Murray’s side, and played smart, deadly tennis. He didn’t look likely to falter until, at break point in the third game of the third set, he pushed Murray back and prepared to deliver the decisive overhead coup de grace.

But Murray read the direction, and put up a lob. Kokkinakis hit another overhead, and when that ball also came back, he hit another. Which also came back as Murray scrambled around the court, surely with his metal hip screaming its objections.

Finally, the Aussie made an error, and demolished his racquet in anguish. When Murray went on to win the third set tiebreak, you had a feeling, as you often do in a situation like this, that the lower ranked player has blown his chance at an upset and is now fated to slowly see the match — drip, drip, drip — turn the other way.

Murray won the fourth set 6-3, and with the two men tied 5-5 in the fifth, he finally broke Kokkinakis, then held serve to capture the contest before a remarkably large and noisy audience given the time of day.

“It’s probably time for everyone to go to bed, including me,” laughed Murray, with his mother Judy and coach Ivan Lendl looking on with pride.

We are clearly witnessing the final days, or months, of the vaunted Big Four in men’s tennis. Roger Federer has retired, Rafael Nadal suffered yet another long-term injury this week and Novak Djokovic is 35, still alive at the Aussie Open but limping on a sore hamstring. Of all of them, it is Murray, a two-time Olympic gold medallist, who seems to have Dylan Thomas’s immortal phrase “rage against the dying of the light” tattooed somewhere on his body.

Yes, Nadal grimly fights on, even when hobbled, and never quits. But Murray grimaces, shouts, swears, screams and bellows as he plays the final portions of a career that was supposed to be over some time ago.

Murray has lost five Australian Open finals without ever winning the title, hasn’t won a tennis major since Wimbledon in 2016 or a tournament of any kind since Antwerp in 2019. But he rages on. He lost his first match in Adelaide to start this year, and that was coming off a 2022 season in which he played 41 matches, lost a third of them and made it to two finals, losing both.

The odds were not great that he might go deep in this Aussie Open, and he still is only in the first week. But after beating Matteo Berrettini in five sets and then coming back to defeat Kokkinakis, he is surely the sentimental favourite now even with other Aussie players still alive, and even with Djokovic having apparently played his way back into the good graces of Australian tennis fans.

Murray tried to explain his improbable comeback over Kokkinakis by saying he played better as the match wore on.

“And yeah, I have a big heart,” he said. “I rely on that experience and that drive and that fight, and my love of the game and competing, and my respect for this event and the competition. That’s why I kept going.”

Given that players do give up from time to time in this sport, thinking it’s smarter to save themselves for the next tournament on the endless tennis calendar or the next Grand Slam, those who don’t ever surrender must bring a little extra something to the court. Murray always has, and his professional grouchiness shouldn’t make us think he’s hating every minute of it.

“That’s usually when I’m at my happiest,” he smiled.

Afterwards, he looked less in need of an ice bath than an oil can for his surgically repaired hip as he limped stiffly off the court. Stiff, but surely exhilarated.

Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin

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