Andy Murray continues remarkable injury return to set up European Open final against Stan Wawrinka

Simon Briggs
Andy Murray has progressed faster than he expected - AFP
Andy Murray has progressed faster than he expected - AFP

Looking down the draw sheet before the European Open in Antwerp, a floating sports fan might have shrugged at a bunch of unfamiliar names, but pointed out two former grand-slam champions: Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka.

Four rounds later, those two giants of the game – both of whom have been sidelined by injury for much of the past 2½ years – will contest Sunday’s final. This eye-catching match-up feels all the more poignant because their last meeting of real significance, a lung-bursting five-setter in the last four of the 2017 French Open, was also the final match that Murray played before the ticking time bomb in his right hip exploded.

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“I feel good,” Murray said on Saturday in his on-court interview. “It has been a long road to get back to this point. I certainly didn’t expect to get here so soon after I started playing again, so it’s a big surprise for me.”

To reach his first final since Dubai in March 2017, Murray had to sneak past a skinny French 21-year-old named Ugo Humbert. This did not seem all that challenging on paper, for Humbert is ranked No 70 in the world and was ­already equalling his own record by reaching the semi-final of an ATP event. But he proved to be surprisingly dangerous, launching whiplash winners with a devil-may-care demeanour.

Still, Murray eventually managed to battle his way through, closing out a 3-6, 7-5, 6-2 victory with a simple volley put-away. It felt like a familiar story, when you consider that this was his 100th win over a French opponent in 118 attempts: an extraordinary winning ratio of 85 per cent.

The French tennis style is usually full of flair, but a little lacking in steel on the biggest points, and Humbert lived up to that perfectly. He is a 6ft 2in left-hander with pipe-cleaner arms who can nevertheless generate huge power with his long, languid swings.

At times, he looked unplayable. Not many people hit 21 winners in 12 games against a defender as good as Murray, which was his tally from the second set. And yet, he managed to lose that set. He resembled the Australian rugby team in Saturday’s World Cup match, trying to deliver fireworks from everywhere but still being outfought by a more disciplined opponent.

When Humbert came out to serve at 6-3, 5-6, he had made the running for the entire match. Murray had been hanging on doggedly, and the encouraging detail was that he was shrinking the court in familiar style with the sharpness of his movement and the ­relentlessness of his defence. But then Humbert banged three big groundstrokes long to hand Murray three set points, before surrendering the last of them with a double fault.

From there, the result was never in doubt. The winners dried up for Humbert, who must have been stewing over that second-set gift. The upshot was that he compounded it with two more weak service games and bowed out in 2hr 22min. Although it was Murray’s second three-setter in as many days, the points were mostly short and the elbow issues that have bugged him over the past week seemed to be under control. His first-serve percentage of 53 per cent was a little better than on Friday against Marius Copil, although he will know that he will have to lift that considerably against Wawrinka.

In light of their recent trajectories, Wawrinka must be a strong favourite. Just like Murray, he has not won a title since the spring of 2017. But while both then dropped off the tour for a considerable period, this will be his 83rd match at ATP level since he underwent double knee surgery in the summer of that year. Whereas, for Murray, there have been far fewer opportunities. He has racked up only 28 matches in that time.

“Stan’s a brilliant player,” Murray said. “We’ve played against each other a lot in big tournaments. He has had his injury problems as well in the last couple of years. In fact, my last match against him in 2017 was when the problems in my hip really started. I never recovered from that match.”

As for Wawrinka, he took out the fast-rising Italian 18-year-old Jannik Sinner in Saturday’s semi-final. “The way I am playing, the way I am moving, I have a lot of confidence in my game,” he said. Asked about his last meeting with Murray, he replied: “It was an amazing match for me because I was playing my best tennis. It’s true that since, a lot of things happen which were not the best in our career, but we’re still here, so it will be amazing to play each other 

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