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Australian Open: Andy Murray stuns Berrettini in first-round classic

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When the draw for the 2023 Australian Open was made, among the many exciting opening fixtures, one stood out as particularly brutal. Unseeded Andy Murray, in a lean patch after returning to tennis after his 2019 hip replacement, being drawn to 13th seed Matteo Berrettini.

Murray’s ranking has been a thorn in his side ever since his return, earning him tough early draws. This time, having arrived in Melbourne fit and chipper, Murray was unfazed by the misfortune.

“Obviously a tough draw,” the Scot said at his pre-event press conference. “But I also feel like I’m in a much better place than where I was during any of the slams last year coming into it… I feel ready to play a top player early in the event.”

As things would turn out, Murray turned his own tough draw into a nightmare for his opponent, taking him down 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (10-6) in just under five hours in what is undoubtedly one of the most captivating opening rounds the Rod Laver Arena has ever seen.

Murray’s tactics – working with Ivan Lendl again, his coach through each of his three Grand Slam titles – were spot on, and handed him a two-set lead. Even though Berrettini’s power game was aided by the closure of the roof due to extreme temperatures, the Scot’s key moves all paid off.

He went for higher power on his forehand, using it to exploit the Italian’s weaker backhand and moving him side-to-side to construct points with ease. He took advantage of Berrettini’s faltering first serve percentage, stepping up to the baseline or inside to take his second serve high and place his return deep into his opponent’s court, robbing him of any time.

His serve did a lot of damage too. Not shying away from Berrettini’s powerhouse forehand, Murray pushed his first serves wide on the deuce court into that wing, forcing the opponent out of the court and putting away the return shot, or taking control of the rallies on his serve.

It was early in the third, after Murray failed to take advantage of a breakpoint opportunity, when Berrettini tuned in to display what has made him one of the most dependable best-of-five sets players on the tour.

Berrettini’s vastly improved serve allowed him to both win cheap points, and bring his forehand back into play, which did plenty of damage when he clocked in on Murray’s baseline strategy and began taking higher risks – going around his own backhand to use his stronger wing and flatten his opponent’s offence.

The fourth set brought the highest intensity and level. Both players took turns attempting to outsmart each other from the baseline, as well as show off their delicate touch with eye-catching volleys, drop shots, and passing shots. The tiebreak was particularly breathless, as Berrettini’s serve shined, while Murray’s court coverage – despite the metal hip – turned back the years and wowed the high-spirited Australian crowd.

A particular highlight of the tiebreak was an intense rally at 6-6, with Berrettini showing great footspeed to catch a smart backhand passing shot, making Murray dive for a volley that landed just wide, eventually giving the Italian the opportunity to level it at two sets all.

The match seemed to have gotten away from Murray in the fifth when he found himself match point down on his own serve, on which Berrettini comically netted a simple put away backhand. The unforced error proved his undoing, with the match going into a ten-point deciding-set tiebreak in which Murray, riding his luck and showing trademark perseverance, prevailed 10-6.

Since his post-pandemic return to regular competitive tennis, Murray’s breakthroughs have usually been followed by setbacks. The disappointment of his results have prompted many to question whether he still has a future in the sport, or any chance of returning to its elite.