Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images


By John Huston and Bill Simons

The conventional wisdom was clear. Novak Djokovic had lost early at both Wimbledon and Olympics, was struggling with his elbow and was suffering a curious case of the dips. Clearly, Andy Murray, who won both Wimbledon and at the Rio Olympics, was trending upward. Many felt he was now tennis’ top dog. At last, he no longer seemed to be the fourth wheel on the big four juggernaught.

John McEnroe nailed it, saying “Murray’s feeling good about being The Man after all these years being The Fourth Man.”

The Scot had won 26 of his last 27 matches.

Then it seemed it was all “GONG!” with the wind.

No, that old TV show, “The Gong Show,” hadn’t come to the Open. And Aussie legend Evonne Goolagong wasn’t being honored.

Rather a random blast from the sound system seemed to change everything.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. So allow us to explain.

At first the Murray machine seemed ready to cruise, while his opponent was playing to lose. The Scot quickly grabbed a 6-1 victory in the first set as Nishikori struggled to land his first serve and failed woefully at defending his second serve. Murray broke Nishikori at 2-2 in the second, before one of the match’s many quirky extraneous factors – a brief rain delay that led to the roof’s closure on an otherwise sunny day.

When the players returned, Nishikori seemed reborn, taking initiative and stepping into the court to immediately break Murray, then unloading some vicious returns and storming the net on Murray’s final service game to take the set 6-4.

By the third it was apparent a real battle was underway and court positioning was huge part of it. In the first set, Murray had been the aggressor, stepping in on Nishikori’s second serve, while Nishikori began dictating points and angles after the second set rain delay. Suddenly both players began struggling on serve, trading breaks at the start of the third, and again at 3-3. A slew of unforced errors from both wings by Nishikori at 4-4 left Murray with a chance to serve out the set, and he seized it.

These two had a gripping five-set battle in Davis Cup in March of this year. Could another epic be in the cards? If so, Nishikori would have to regroup again and Murray would have to melt down – which is exactly what happened.

The fourth set will go down as one of the strangest sets this year, dominated by a pair of quirky events that had nothing to do with striking a yellow ball. At 1-1, Nishikori found himself down 30-40 and on the defense when the stadium sound system imploded midpoint with a fierce (un-tennis-like) gong. The point had to be replayed, and Nishikori won it. At deuce, and during the changeover, Murray exchanged words with ump Marija Cicak, claiming that she’d told him earlier they would play through any unexpected noise. Tournament supervisor Wayne McKewen was called out on court to reason with the ornery Scot. Just like Roberta Vinci had done yesterday when she was called for a foot-fault at set point, a rattled Murray proceeded to lose it, as he dropped seven games in a row. Meanwhile, a free-spirited moth flew about near the net – at one point an annoyed Murray even swatted at it – until it was captured by ball boys and, to the glee of many an animal lover, let free outside the stadium.

Murray’s meltdown bled into the fifth set, allowing Nishikori to score the first break. Finally, at 0-2, he stemmed the tide, going on to break back and even things at 2-2. Yet somehow one got the sense that the match belonged to Nishikori, who was controlling the majority of rallies and more prone to end points at the net. He broke Murray again and grabbed a 4-2 lead before the Scot took advantage of some nervous shots by his opponent to climb even once more at 4-4. At 5-5, Murray had a wretched service game, missing first serves and double-faulting at 30-30. On break point Nishikori executed a drop shot and lunging volley that left the frustrated Scot whipping the net with his racket in frustration.

Serving for the match, Nishikori began with a double fault, but then shook out his legs, calmed his nerves and successively served stronger. Four points later, the 1-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5 victory was his.

Of course, another beneficiary of Nishikori’s second win in eight matches against Murray was Novak Djokovic. The Serb is now a heavy favorite to win the Open. He has a 12-0 record against his semifinal foe Gael Monfils and he’s 10-2 over Nishikori, 19-4 over Stan Wawrinka and 11-4 over Juan Martin del Potro.