Andy Murray finished the 2016 season playing nearly every week to secure the No. 1 ranking for the first time.
After shutting down his season midway through last year because of a hip injury, his presence around tennis has been far more rare. On Monday, the 382nd-ranked Murray played a Grand Slam match for the first time in more than a year, beating 448th-ranked James Duckworth, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-5, 6-3.
Assuming the others play, as expected, Murray’s presence will make this the first tournament since Wimbledon last year to include all of the Big Four — Murray, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
Murray’s season has been stop-and-start. After traveling to Melbourne with the intention of playing the Australian Open, he instead had hip surgery there. He came back at grass-court tournaments in England in June, but pulled out of Wimbledon, citing a lack of readiness for best-of-five-set matches. He won three matches in Washington and then withdrew from that tournament and from one in Toronto. He lost his first match in Cincinnati.
Though his late withdrawals from tournaments could have been valid reason for skepticism about his status for the Open, Murray said there was “no doubt at any stage whether I was going to play or not, for me or for my team.”
He added: “I’ve got a bunch of matches under my belt, a lot more training and just a kind of better understanding of where my body is at.”
But after his first-round victory Murrayhesitated to call himself a contender for this title, which he won in 2012.
“I don’t think anything changes after today; I think I’m still just taking it one match at a time,” he said. “Yeah, I mean, this is the first time I have played four sets in 14 months, so I just have to wait and see how I pull up tomorrow. Hopefully I feel good, and take it from there.”
Murray was particularly pleased with how he thought his way through the match, as strategic decisions can often take a back seat when there are physical uncertainties.
“I think tactically I did well,” Murray said. “I made some adjustments on the return from the first set, which is a really positive thing. I think when you haven’t played loads, it can be easy to just get wrapped up in how you’re actually hitting the ball rather than thinking about the strategy and what you’re trying to do out there. So I made some adjustments on the return game, and that helped me a lot.”
Murray’s movement improved as the match went on, highlighted by chasing down a Duckworth drop volley on the penultimate point. Murray celebrated with several fist-pumps on his way back to the baseline.
It was also a winning return for Stan Wawrinka, who was not able to defend his 2016 U.S. Open title last year because of a knee injury that kept him out for the second half of the season. Like Murray, Wawrinka still carries an unfamiliar three-digit ranking (101) as he works his way back.
Wawrinka, whose three Grand Slam titles have earned him something resembling adjunct status to the Big Four, beat eighth-seeded Grigor Dimitrov, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5. Wawrinka had also beaten Dimitrov in the first round of Wimbledon this year.
Wawrinka had lost four in a row to Dimitrov before that win, which came on his worst surface and Dimitrov’s best.
“To realize and see that I can beat him on the grass court in Wimbledon, a Grand Slam, it gave me a lot of self-confidence,” Wawrinka said. “I knew it will be completely different here, but I like the conditions.”
Wawrinka said he watched some of Murray’s match after winning his own.
“I have always been a fan to watch the top guys playing, if possible,” he said. “Playing against each other in the final, it’s always amazing match. I think it’s great also for the fans, for the tournament, what’s going happen in the next two weeks.”