For a considerable amount of time over the past few months, Andy Murray did not even intend to step foot on a clay court this year. His primary goal was to maintain his body for the grass‑court season to come and the gruelling nature of clay‑court tennis could jeopardise that.
In the end, though, Murray just could not stay away. After attaining a surprise wildcard into the Madrid Open, on Monday he played a solid, composed match to reach the second round with a 6-3, 6-4 win against Dominic Thiem. Murray will next face Denis Shapovalov, the 14th seed.
“I played well,” Murray told Amazon Prime. “I thought Dominic was playing well at times but he’s obviously just started playing again as well so making a few more mistakes than usual. But I was happy with the way I played and I moved particularly well; that’s something I’ve been working on a lot the last four weeks and it changes the way I play the game.” The last time Murray and Thiem met each other on clay, almost exactly five years ago in 2017, Murray was the world No 1 and Thiem was on the cusp of establishing himself as arguably the second‑best clay-court player in the world for a short period.
While Murray is ranked 78th and is years into his return from hip surgery, at No 91 Thiem is trying to recover from the nadir of his career. His struggles even pre‑dated his injury, with motivation issues following his maiden grand slam title victory at the 2020 US Open.
As he searched for new motivation, Thiem badly injured his right wrist during a match last June and his comeback attempts have been beset by countless setbacks. In his rush to return swiftly, he reinjured his wrist and was forced to wear a new cast. Illness, a right‑knuckle injury and then even a positive Covid test right after his comeback match have all continually delayed his return.
Three tournaments into his comeback, Thiem arrived in Madrid still yet to win a match. After such a major wrist injury, his forehand has been the central issue. It was a nonentity in his opening matches and he only began to unleash towards the end of his first‑round defeat in Estoril last week.
Against Murray, Thiem was comfortable enough with his wrist to unleash enormous forehands from the beginning, but he is striking those forehands with significantly less topspin than the vicious, heavy stroke at his peak. The consequence was a constant stream of unforced errors among a smaller proportion of winners.
In that context, Murray played a solid match and he did most things as well as he could have hoped. He kept his unforced errors extremely low against an erratic opponent, he served very well under pressure and he used his drop shots and delicate lobs to move Thiem from his position far beyond the baseline. Murray was positive throughout and with this performance he has earned another day in the tournament to see how far he can push himself.
In the midst of his own comeback, it is not often that Murray is the more match fit and physically robust player on the court.
For Thiem, these early stages of his return have highlighted the task ahead as he also tries to return to the top of the sport and Murray was the first to acknowledge it as they embraced at the net. “It’s great to see you back,” he said. “Keep going. It takes a lot of time but you’ll be fine.”
Earlier in the day, Cameron Norrie, the ninth seed, reached the second round with a tight 7-5, 7-5 win against Kwon Soonwoo of South Korea.