By HOWARD FENDRICH AP Tennis Writer
MELBOURNE, Australia — Metal hip, bloody knee and all, Andy Murray produced his biggest victory in years.
Murray built a huge lead, let it disappear completely, then needed to save a match point against Matteo Berrettini – who is nearly a full decade younger and ranked more than 50 places higher – before managing to pull out a 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (10-6) triumph across more than 4½ epic hours on Tuesday (late Monday night PT) in the Australian Open’s first round.
“The last few years, I’ve certainly questioned myself at times. There’s certainly a lot of people (who) questioned me and my ability, whether I could still perform at the biggest events and the biggest matches,” said the 35-year-old Murray, a former No. 1 who is now ranked No. 66. “I felt very proud of myself after the match. That’s not something that I generally felt over the years at the end of tennis matches.”
This was the three-time major champion’s first victory over a top-20 opponent at a Grand Slam tournament since 2017. That was before Murray thought he would need to retire – and even was given a career send-off at Melbourne Park in 2019, when he exited in the first round a year after his first hip operation.
After a second surgery inserted an artificial hip, Murray decided to try to continue playing. This sort of evening was likely what he had in mind when he pressed on – and when he spent three weeks in Boca Raton, Florida, practicing under the tutelage of coach Ivan Lendl during the offseason.
“I’ve put a lot of work into the last few months with my team to give me the opportunity to perform on stadiums like this, in matches like this, against players like Matteo,” Murray told a crowd that roared with approval for him. “And it paid off tonight.”
Oh, yes, what a performance it was, filled with the sort of grit that defined much of Murray’s time on tour, that carried him to championships at the U.S. Open in 2012 and at Wimbledon in 2013 and 2016 and to two Olympic singles gold medals.
Murray is also a five-time runner-up at Melbourne Park, with four losses in the final to Novak Djokovic and one to Roger Federer.
“He’s a great champion. I said it so many times,” said Berrettini, an Italian who is one of the players chronicled in the new “Break Point” Netflix docuseries. “Personally, was great to play with that atmosphere against him. Just a great match. Unfortunately, it didn’t go my way.”
There were moments in this match when Murray played as he did a long time ago, diving to hit a volley before slamming to the blue court – scraping his right leg – or sprinting to somehow reach seemingly unreachable shots, then looking up into the stands at Lendl and shaking a fist while yelling, “Let’s go! Come on now!”
Murray raced through the first two sets in less than 90 minutes before the big-hitting, big-serving Berrettini turned things around and took the match to a fifth, even coming within one point of victory at 5-4 in that set but faltering and flubbing an easy backhand.
By beating the 13th-seeded Berrettini, who was the runner-up at Wimbledon in 2021, Murray became only the fifth man in the Open era with 50 match wins at the Australian Open, joining Djokovic, Federer, Rafael Nadal and Stefan Edberg.
They played under a closed roof at Rod Laver Arena because of temperatures that soared up to 100 degrees and caused suspensions of play that lasted hours in matches on smaller courts that can’t be covered. Later, a rainstorm came, creating another pause in the action.
This was the most-anticipated match of the afternoon session and lasted so long that it finished after 7 p.m. local time, most definitely living up to the hype.
“Some of the tennis at the end was really good,” Murray said. “It felt like that playing; I don’t know what it looked like.”
Looked terrific, Andy.
It was difficult to imagine that the night session matches scheduled to follow in Laver – the first involving the No. 2-seeded woman, Ons Jabeur, and the second featuring nine-time champion Djokovic’s return to the Australian Open after he was deported from the country a year ago for not being vaccinated against COVID-19 – could possibly equal the intensity and drama that Murray and Berrettini delivered.
They concluded with the first-to-10-points, win-by-2 tiebreaker formula that all Grand Slam events adopted for the fifth sets of men’s matches and third sets of women’s. Murray said it was his first experience with that relatively new format.
Make no mistake: He was far better in that decisive section of the match, jumping out to leads of 5-0 and 8-3. It ended in a bit of anticlimactic fashion: Murray’s service return clipped the net cord and trickled over for a winner.
“Just a bit lucky at the end,” said Murray, who next will meet Thanasi Kokkinakis or Fabio Fognini.
Murray has wondered aloud whether all of the work he put in to get back to a level of play that satisfied him was worth it.
“I need to give myself some credit, because the last few years have been tough,” Murray said. “I’ve lost a few of those matches, those type of matches, in the Slams the last couple years.”
He arrived in Australia having lost in the first or second round in seven of his nine most recent Grand Slam appearances. The other two ended in the third round.
For now, this one continues.
“It’s impressive what he could do after so many surgeries, after all the kilometers that he ran in his career. It’s impressive,” Berrettini said. “It just shows how much he loves the game, how much he loves these kind of matches.”
Dominic Thiem did not win his first match at the Australian Open in two years. Still, the 2020 U.S. Open champion says he is still on the right track to get back toward the top of the game after wrist surgery took him off the tour for 10 months.
Thiem, the 2020 runner-up at Melbourne Park who needed a wild-card invitation to get in this time, lost to No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, on Tuesday after needing treatment for an abdominal strain.
The 29-year-old Thiem fell as low as No. 352 in the rankings at one stage in 2022, but ended the year back inside the top 100.
“I have the feeling that the game, in general, (is moving) in a positive direction,” the 29-year-old Thiem said. “Honestly, I don’t think that even (when I am) 100% I’m able to beat Rublev yet … and with the issue like the abs, it’s going to be almost impossible. But the direction doesn’t really change after that defeat. I try to go forward and try to make it better in the next tournaments.”
In other notable first-round men’s matches, eighth-seeded American Taylor Fritz defeated Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia, 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5; ninth-seeded Holger Rune defeated Filip Krajinovic, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 and 12th-seeded Alexander Zverev defeated Juan Pablo Varillas, 4-6, 6-1, 5-7, 7-6 (3), 6-4.
TOWNSEND GETS FIRST SLAM WIN AS A MOM
As Taylor Townsend was preparing to return to professional tennis after becoming a mom nearly two years ago, she sought counsel from a couple of pretty good sources: Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters.
Clijsters, who collected three of her four Grand Slam titles as a mother, offered this advice, according to Townsend, a 26-year-old left-hander from Chicago who won her first-round match on Tuesday: “Really enjoy being a mom, don’t rush and take your time, because you don’t want to come back feeling pressure or anything like that. That was kind of like my mentality when I was coming back: I want to enjoy being a mother. I want to understand my son. I don’t want to feel the pressure of, like, ‘I have to play.’”
Townsend gave birth to A.J. in March 2021, and a 6-1, 6-1 victory over Diane Parry of France at Melbourne Park was her first in singles action at a Grand Slam tournament since then.
“My goal is just to try and inspire people and moms to show that you can do whatever you want,” Townsend said. “Having a child doesn’t stop you from hustling and grinding and just being great at whatever you want to do.”
Townsend’s game was too much for Parry: The American never faced a break chance, hit seven aces and won the point on 11 of 12 trips to the net. She compiled 23 winners to just eight for Parry.
It all took only 57 minutes.
“Was a really, really bad day for me,” Parry said. Asked how much of that was her doing or Townsend’s, Parry responded: “A lot of me and also her.”
During the most recent offseason, Townsend took what she called the first “solo vacation” of her life, spending 10 days in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
It worked wonders for her mindset but also reduced the amount of time she spent with A.J., making this trip to Australia a little more difficult for Townsend.
“When I left home, I was pretty sad. … (But) when I leave, it’s incredibly important for me to make the times that I leave count. I talk to him, and before my matches I look at pictures and videos and just remind myself of why I’m doing this and why I’m away, so it means something,” she said. “It really is special to make these moments count and to be able to show the ups and downs. … I’m just trying to be the best example that I can for him, both when he is with me and (when) he is not here. Hopefully making him proud.”
In notable women’s first-round matches, second-seeded Ons Jabeur, No. 4 Caroline Garcia, No. 5 Aryna Sabalenka, No. 12 Belinda Bencic and No. 30 Karolina Pliskova won, and unseeded American Shelby Rogers defeated Arianne Hartono, 6-4, 6-3.
Associated Press freelancer Simon Cambers contributed to this report.