KEY BISCAYNE, Fla.
In a grueling duel that raised questions about where pro tennis wants to go, Andy Murray won the Sony Open for the second time, claiming a 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (1) victory over Spain’s David Ferrer.
This was not a classic. Neither man played well enough for that. But given the slow speed of the court, the strings that have changed the way the game is played and the fact Murray and Ferrer are friends who practice together before tournaments and therefore know each other’s games inside out, it was never likely that we would get anything other than a grinding battle that left both men on the brink of physical collapse at the end of their 2-hour, 45-minute, gut-busting endeavor.
Murray hardly had the energy to throw his wristlet into the crowd and was still slightly breathless by the time he accepted the Butch Buchholz Trophy.
Ferrer was fighting cramps in both legs in a tiebreaker that was no contest from the moment a let cord bounced back at him to give Murray the mini-break on the first point. The Scot needed only to keep the ball in play to win it 7-1.
Murray acknowledged that he had been fortunate to catch the back of the line with a forehand when Ferrer reached his solitary match point at 6-5. The Spaniard actually stopped the point and challenged but HawkEye showed the shot was in by an inch. Those are always going to be the margins between these two.
The question is this: Do the authorities want tennis to turn into a battle of the fittest or the most skillful? If the courts, balls and strings all favor backcourt hitters who can keep the ball in play forever, two things will happen: The crowds will get bored, and the players will have increasingly short careers.
Armchair critics who started tweeting about the errors both players were making have no concept of what it takes to hit as many balls as hard as these two in rallies that frequently exceeded 20 strikes. Both men have trained themselves to a peak of fitness very few athletes would be able to emulate, but the game, as they play it, is basically too exhausting.
Today’s top tennis player has to be a sprinter and a marathon runner — and have exceptional hand-eye coordination quite apart from a level of concentration and mental fortitude that would be beyond most athletes.
Ferrer admitted that he was more tired than Murray at the end and did not want to think about his decision to stop play and go to HawkEye on match point. Had he not, Murray would have had to play at least another shot, which, Murray admitted, would have been difficult on such a big point.
But Ferrer tried to put it behind him.
“I chose my decision in that moment," he said. "It’s a bad moment now. I don’t want to think any more about that. I want to forget, the more fast as possible.”
The match was extraordinary in many aspects, not least for Murray’s strange start. He had game point in four of the first five games but found himself 0-5 down as a result of ballooning shots out of court at crucial moments.
Soon, serves were being broken as a matter of routine. The third set produced no less than six consecutive breaks in the first six games — something I cannot remember happening before in a men’s match.
Ferrer finally held to lead 4-3, but then Murray stepped forward to crack a great early service return through the Spanish defenses to reach break point in the ninth game. When Ferrer netted a forehand, Murray was serving for the match.
But a lob that went long and, on break point, a forehand that found the net off a smash left him staring at the heavens in disbelief. Two games later, he was having to save that match point.
After some liquids, food, stretching and massages, Murray was still struggling to put his thoughts together when he arrived in the media room.
“I mean, it’s taking a little while to sink in because it’s so tough to think at the end of the match," he said. "It was so tough physically and mentally that you were just trying to play each point.
"I’m sure tomorrow I will realize that it was an exciting match. I don’t think either of us played our best tennis. But what I did do was fight hard and showed good mental strength because it could easily have slipped away from me.”
When asked for a comparison with his five-set duel with Novak Djokovic in the final of the US Open, Murray replied: “Conditions. We started at 7 p.m. in the evening in New York, and it was windy and cool. The conditions in Miami are extremely hard. It was very, very humid today.
"You remember when Rafa (Nadal) played Novak here a couple of years ago in a three-set final, Rafa was, I think, in the hospital after the match. Sometimes, pressure and nerves can add to that. It was a big match for both of us.”
Even in the locker room the joy was limited.
“I wasn’t celebrating with my team,” Murray said. “Both of us were just kind of sitting there because we were just incredibly, incredibly tired after a match like that.”
So that’s what it’s come to. But is it what we want?