That these three sets sprawled for three hours and 20 minutes should explain a lot about this grind session between tennis’s two fastest players. Eventually Andy Murray—or at least his empty, deadened husk—edged out Kei Nishikori, 6-7(9), 6-4, 6-4, in their consistently high-quality, often infuriating match at the ATP World Tour Finals. Nishikori proved the sharper player for the bulk of the match. But as both players wore each other down with relentless defense and both slipped down to their second register, flaws crept into Nishikori’s precision game, his shot selection faltered, and top-ranked Murray extended his win streak to 21 matches.
Nishikori remains the most confounding foil for Murray because he beats him at his own game. Nishikori is content to play out these brutal cross-court skirmishes from either wing, patiently awaiting the tiniest opening to lash it down the line for a pretty winner. He’s as agile as Murray on defense. His favorite cross-court backhand flies even punchier and flatter than Murray’s, and today produced some satisfyingly acute angles.
Through the first set and most of the second, all these tools seemed sufficient to topple the No. 1 seed, just as like they were at the U.S. Open. At the peak of his play Nishikori serenely slid along the baseline, nudging Murray farther and farther off the court with penetrating depth and pace, coming to net when he could, and painting the sideline when he had to. And still Murray kept coming up with replies like this:
Nishikori still won that first set tiebreak, albeit in nerve-wracking fashion, squandering a fistful of set points on the way. The second set sustained the tension, with each player breaking each other once to even things up at 4-4. That was about when the Japanese player haplessly began experimenting with one of his many tools, the dropshot.
He opted for a drop at so many junctures where he would’ve been better served by a decisive approach shot, a nail in the coffin. And Murray would run up and punish these weak offerings. Despite this pattern of failure, Nishikori kept trying it, a tactical failure that was hard to watch, especially after he’d constructed dozens of points so creatively and cunningly. I began to wonder if he was playing these gettable dropshots just to make his opponent move—was he just trying to give an already haggard Murray a little more of a runaround? But that seems like a deranged strategy at this level of play, against a guy who always seems to have more energy in store even when his surly face doesn’t reveal it. Murray’s playing style was woven out of every sports cliché about grit and tenacity and scrappiness; he’ll do this shit for hours, if he needs to.
The third set saw Nishikori broken early thanks to some unfriendly net cords and erratic play, and he quickly sunk down 5-1 before returning to life. In those final games he loosened up again and you began to see flickers of his initial genius, but by then it was too late, and Murray served out a victory. Yes, we’re only the round robin phase in London, and there’s plenty more tennis this week for Nishikori, but as of right now, having let slip a perfect upset, he looks gutted. Me and him both.