It was hardly the reunion Andy Murray envisaged but, three years after losing to Stan Wawrinka in a semi-final that few present will forget, there was little he could do against the power of the Swiss in three mercifully quick sets on the opening day of the 2020 French Open.
Wawrinka won 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 in an hour and 27 minutes in a near-empty Court Philippe Chatrier on a wickedly cold Sunday afternoon, a towering anti-climax for the loser and the tournament. Their 2017 epic took nearly three hours longer – and wrecked both of them for a worryingly long time.
This defeat equalled the heaviest in a slam for Murray, the 2014 semi-final when Rafael Nadal also allowed him only six games. Murray described that loss as, “a bad, bad day”. On Sunday, at least, he had the excuse of inactivity but, at no point did Murray, a finalist in 2016, get into the fight; they probably had a closer contest when they practised together on the same court a week ago.
“A bit simpler than I expected,” Wawrinka admitted courtside. “The operations he had, they made a difference. I have a lot of respect for Andy. I had operations too. Okay, it is not a full crowd today, but I hope the fans enjoyed the game, even in the cold conditions.”
He has players such as Dominic Thiem and Gaël Monfils waiting on that side of the draw, as well as Felix Auger-Aliassime, who beat Murray in New York.
This was Murray’s first match on clay since that 2017 semi-final, when both were already pushing their bodies beyond reasonable limits. He missed the following two French Opens while surgeons delved into the mystery of his troublesome hip, while Wawrinka twice needed surgery on his knee. Both looked much healthier on Sunday, testimony to their determination to wring the last few drops out of two roughly parallel careers, but there was little life in Murray’s tennis.
It was his 50th grand slam event – more than any other British player – but, at 33, he wants to do more than merely turn up; he wants to compete at the highest level. Still, as he said beforehand, meeting someone of Wawrinka’s calibre in the first round is his lot until he can eat into his 111 world ranking.
Neither gave the 95-place gap in their rankings much thought as they steeled themselves against the autumnal chill, with the new roof open on the tournament’s showpiece court. It wasn’t cold enough to send Victoria Azarenka back to Florida, but there was enough nip in the late afternoon air to put Murray into leggings, a rare sight. Wawrinka stayed in shorts and tennis shirt.
The Swiss won five games in a row as Murray struggled to put any muscle through the heavy new Wilson balls on the damp, stodgy clay, which will surely be a feature of the fortnight.
Although down 8-12 in their career rivalry, Wawrinka had won four of their five matches on clay where his natural strength wears down opponents – including Novak Djokovic in the final here five years ago. He will do well to get near those heights this time, but the unusual conditions might be his friend in close matches.
He missed Flushing Meadows and lost to the rising young Italian Lorenzo Musetti on his return to the Tour in Rome last week, but Murray’s erratic serve gave him too many soft openings.
Swivelling with full force through withering forehands that left Murray stuck on the baseline, he took the first set in 33 minutes.
Murray, who came from two sets down to beat Yoshihito Nishioka in the first round of the US Open earlier this month, winked at a friend in the sparse crowd at the start of the second set, and a love hold seemed to improve his demeanour.
However, when broken again, Murray smiled to himself, perhaps not resigned to his fate but plainly aware he had struck Wawrinka on one of those days when it would take a bull elephant to stop him. Wawrinka cruised to 5-2 and looked to have the match in his pocket when they duelled at deuce on Murray’s serve. While an ace and some dogged work from the baseline kept the set alive a little longer, the Wawrinka winners kept coming and he was 2-0 up after 67 minutes.
Wawrinka is no Nishioka and, keen for an early dinner, he was going to do Murray no favours. And there was little evidence of the famed Murray resilience when Wawrinka broke again at the start of the third set.
It took Murray an hour and a quarter to get his first break points – three of them – but Wawrinka held, and then proceeded without fuss to the finish.