Murray won the China Open on his last appearance, defeating Grigor Dimitrov in the final as he embarked on a late-season run which would see him rise to world no. 1 for the first time in his career, but has returned three years later in very different circumstances, vulnerable, ranked outside the top 500 and struggling to rebuild his game after January’s hip resurfacing, an operation which has liberated him from constant pain and given him a chance to prolong his playing days but leaves his future very much in doubt.
Each tournament Murray has played since returning to singles competition in August has seen him make some progress towards what he once was and the China Open has been no exception. After getting the first ATP Tour-level win of his comeback over Tennys Sandgren in Zhuhai last week, Murray got the best ATP Tour-level win of his comeback over world no. 13 Matteo Berrettini this week in Beijing, and followed it up by beating Cameron Norrie 7-6(6), 6-7(4), 6-1, winning consecutive ATP Tour-level matches for the first time since Shenzhen almost a year ago (and one of those wins had come via retirement – the last time Murray won back-to-back completed ATP Tour-level matches was Washington last July).
Beating Norrie clearly did not come easy, with Murray broken while serving for the first set and coming back from 2-5 down in the second only to lose it in a tie-break, but he dominated the third set in impressive style and perhaps most importantly survived the two-hour, 54-minute clash in one piece and (presumably) in shape to play Friday’s quarterfinals after a rest day.
‘I’m really tired,’ Murray admitted after closing out Wednesday’s victory. ‘That’s the first time I’ve had to do that since I came back… It’s something that I need to kind of get used to again, especially playing at this level and that intensity.
‘It was a good step for me. It’s great that I won the match. Whether I’d won or lost it, I was able to come out the following day and be competitive and play some good tennis. But obviously I’m happy I’ve got the day off tomorrow to recover.’
Murray now looks to make the semifinals of an ATP Tour event for the first time since the 2017 French Open – and for his first win over a top-10 player since beating Kei Nishikori at the same tournament – as he takes on Thiem on Friday.
Quite apart from wanting to shake off a dismal little mini-run of results which has seen him crash out of the US Open in the first round against Thomas Fabbiano and lose to world no. 162 Emil Ruusuvori during a Davis Cup tie, Thiem has every incentive to want to do well in Beijing. Despite a season which has seen him reach his second French Open final and win a maiden Masters 1000 Series title at Indian Wells as well as snapping up titles in Barcelona and Kitzbuhel, Thiem still hasn’t secured his place at the Nitto ATP Finals, for which he is trying to qualify for the fourth straight year.
The Austrian is next in line to qualify for London, in fifth place behind the four qualified players (although he trails the qualified Daniil Medvedev by over 1,000 points), and can secure his place for sure by winning the China Open this week. Even if he doesn’t win the title, the deeper he goes at the 500-level event, the likelier it is that he will edge over the line at the Shanghai Masters next week, especially as other contenders fall away.
So despite the poor run of form he’s been on since getting ill after winning Kitzbuhel, and I include the Laver Cup in that where he went 1-1, Thiem has had plenty of motivation to get back to winning ways in Beijing and he has come through the draw in straightforward style so far, beating Richard Gasquet 6-4, 6-1 and Zhang Zhizhen 6-3, 6-3 to book his place in the quarterfinals.
Thiem’s Asian swing results are normally somewhere between non-existent and abysmal, so it’s a good sign that the Austrian is still in decent enough shape at this stage of the season to be getting wins at all – now can he make the semifinals of a hard-court event for the first time since winning Indian Wells?
Murray leads their head-to-head 2-1, having beaten Thiem ion hard courts in Rotterdam in 2015 and Miami in 2016 but lost their only subsequent encounter, which came on the clay of Barcelona in 2017. But these circumstances are, of course, exceptional. Murray has been moving and striking his forehand a lot better in his last few matches, but he’s still very far from his ‘usual’ form; Thiem isn’t exactly in the midst of a purple patch himself, but physically, surely, he will be able to bring far more resources to the court, and as a consequence book himself a place in the semifinals on Friday.
Murray vs Thiem China Open tennis is live from Beijing on Friday at 2.30pm local/7.30am BST
Murray vs Thiem tennis live streaming, preview and predictions – Murray faces top-10 player for the first time since surgery
Dominic Thiem tries to record his first victory over Andy Murray on hard courts as the two clash for a…
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