During the long coronavirus lockdown, British tennis players, like the tennis players of most countries, largely had to settle for playing each other, first in a men-only “Battle of the Brits” tournament and then in a team equivalent that featured both male and female players. Those phony battles are now over and competitive tennis has resumed in earnest at the US Open. However, as we approach the end of the first week in New York, only two of the six British players who began the tournament remain, and by the end of today they could be gone as well.
New York has never been the happiest of hunting grounds for British players. In the entire history of the US Championships, which became the US Open in 1968 with the start of the professional era in tennis, only three British men have won the tournament: Laurence Doherty in 1903; Fred Perry in 1933, 1934 and 1936; and Andy Murray in 2012, when he won his first Major. Similarly, only three British women have ever triumphed in the Big Apple: Mabel Cahill in 1891 and 1892; Betty Nuthall in 1930; and Virginia Wade in that first Open year of 1968. So perhaps it is no surprise, especially after nearly six months of little or no genuine competition, that after a strong start this week the combined British effort has tailed off dramatically.
Andy Murray is, of course, the only current British player to have won a Major in America (or anywhere else), but increasingly it looks as if his Major-winning days are now a thing of the past. The Great Scot conceded as much himself after losing in straight sets in the second round to Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime, who, as a wide-eyed 12-year-old, had actually watched Murray’s US Open win in 2012. With typically dour wit, Murray said after the loss that “It was hard enough when I had two normal hips” to win tournaments, let alone Majors, but in the wake of his injury problems and operations over the last few years it has become even harder.
Murray had produced a spectacular comeback in the first round, coming back from two sets down to defeat Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka. However, as many observers and perhaps even Murray himself had feared, that gigantic effort took its toll in the match against Auger-Aliassime. Put simply, Murray may well be capable of winning one or even two hard-fought five-set matches at a Major, but it is now incredibly unlikely that he will ever again be able to win the seven five-set matches required to actually win a Major.
Murray is almost certainly on the downward slope of his career trajectory, but the other Britons competing in New York all hope that they are still heading upwards. Nevertheless, most of them fared little better than Murray, who for so long has been the inspiration for British tennis fans and even other British tennis players. Kyle Edmund can count it a qualified success to have won a set against Novak Djokovic in their second round encounter, but after taking that first set on a tie-break he faltered, eventually going down in four sets. However, there is absolutely no shame in losing to the man who, but for the pandemic, might well have been going for a calendar (i.e. genuine) Grand Slam in New York, such has been his form in 2020, when he is still to lose a tennis match of any kind.
More than Murray or Edmund, the real disappointment among the Brits in New York this week was Johanna Konta. She had actually won a real “Battle of the Brits” against Heather Watson, the British No.2, in the first round, but even in that straight sets victory she had conceded numerous set points in the first set tie-break. Watson, who had been playing so well before the pandemic, was unable to beat the British No.1, but in the second round Romania’s Sorana Cirstea was.
Unfortunately, this will go down as one of the many “might-have-beens” in Konta’s recent career, as she dominated Cirstea in the first set, winning it 6-2, and broke her opponent’s serve several times in both the second and third sets. Ultimately, however, she lost in three sets, 2-6 7-6 (7-5) 6-4. Like Murray, she was defiant afterwards, insisting that she could still win a Major, but unlike Murray she has never done so and with each disappointing defeat against a lower-ranked opponent the chances of her ever doing so recede further.
Undoubtedly, the British star of the first week in New York has been Cameron Norrie, Britain’s No.4 male tennis player. Like Murray, he came back from two sets down in his first match to win in five, but unlike Murray he defeated a seed to do so – Argentina’s pocket battleship, Diego Schwartzman – and then backed up that breakthrough win by defeating another Argentinian, Federico Coria (younger brother of the great Guillermo), in straight sets in the second round. In the third round, Norrie faces Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, “The Unconventional Spaniard”, as LWOT’s Pablo Mosquera memorably dubbed him last year because of his penchant for drop shots and trick shots, with both men hoping to make it through to the second round of a Major for the first time.
And, finally, there is Dan Evans, who will be on court after Norrie’s match ends. Evans won the inaugural “Battle of the Brits” event, beating Murray, Edmund and Norrie along the way. However, he has only ever made it to the second week of a Major once before (in Australia in 2017, just before his drugs ban for taking cocaine) and he will have to overcome France’s rising star, Corentin Moutet, and Murray’s conqueror, Auger-Aliassime, if he is to repeat the feat. With Auger-Aliassime enjoying an extra day’s rest after the Evans-Moutet match was suspended because of rain, the young Canadian will fancy his chances of defeating another Briton even if Evans should win through to meet him.
Of course tennis is ultimately an individual sport, not a team one, so it is always slightly absurd to try to make sweeping generalizations about the state of a country’s players rather than analysing them all individually. Nevertheless, this week in New York has been a painful reminder that for all of Andy Murray’s remarkable triumphs in the last decade, it remains unlikely that any other British player – male or female – will be following him into the ranks of the Major-winners in tennis any time soon.
Main Photo from Getty.