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It was hard to know which was the more surprising. That Andy Murray recovered from a set down to beat Carlos Alcaraz, a lavishly talented Spaniard who – at 18 – is barely more than half his own age. Or that he introduced a new stroke – the underarm serve – at this late stage of his career.
Murray’s multi-faceted game features all kinds of tricky variations, lobs and dinks, but we had never seen him deploy this particular sleight of hand before. He brought the shot out at game point, early in the second set, when Alcaraz was standing so deep that he was in danger of getting the bends.
Happily, Murray nailed his execution – because it always feels anti-climactic when a player deploys this cheeky, provocative shot as a surprise tactic, and then fails to find the service box.
The ball landed nice and short over the net and had bounced twice by the time it left the court. Alcaraz was so badly stranded that he didn’t even bother to take a step forward. Instead, both men walked straight off the court and back to their chairs.
“I've never done it on the tour before,” said Murray afterwards, “[but] the courts are so slow. I served [only] three aces in a long match, one of them being the underarm serve.
“I thought ‘If he's going to stand that far back and I'm getting no love from the court and the conditions, why not try it and see if I can bring him forward a little bit?’ I wasn't expecting to get an ace out of it [but] he was so far back, he didn't react. When guys are standing there to return serve now, it's a smart play.”
Was it a pivotal moment? Well, Murray needed that hold badly, and he went on to win 10 of the next 14 games to complete his 5-7, 6-3, 6-2 victory. So it can’t have hurt.
Ultimately, though, it felt as if Alcaraz lost half-a-step of energy as this fiercely hot afternoon wore on.
Ranked 38 in the world on the back of his recent run to the US Open quarter-finals, he hasn’t played since that tournament because of a thigh injury. And even though he is a phenomenally powerful athlete, the most physically developed teenager we have seen since the emergence of the young Rafael Nadal, he cannot have come in with the usual level of conditioning.
Murray, by contrast, was relentless in his focus and dogged in his court coverage, demonstrating that he can still run forever even with a metal hip. This was a huge victory for him against a man with such rich talents that he has been tipped – even by Murray himself – as a future world No 1.
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) October 10, 2021
“Like at the US Open, my body did well today,” said Murray, who had pushed world No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas all the way in a 4hr 49min barn-burner in New York six weeks ago.
“It was hard conditions. It was very hot. Because of the nature of the court here, you're going to play some long rallies, especially against a player like him.
“Yeah, at times I played some really good tennis,” added Murray. “It wasn't my best match. I can certainly still do things better. I thought I competed well today, which was probably the most pleasing part for me.”
Murray will go again on Tuesday against world No. 4 Alexander Zverev, a man he has beaten in both their previous meetings.
“I'm looking forward to playing him,” said Zverev, after his own win over the USA’s Jenson Brooksby. “I mean, he's the only one out of the big four I haven't beaten yet. I hope I can change that after tomorrow.”
Underhand or ingenious?
Despicably snide when performed by Nick Kyrgios but impishly clever when successfully carried off by a knight of the realm. To be fair to Sir Andy Murray, his mother, Judy, has always condoned Kyrgios' use of it.
Controversy rating: 3/5
Splits the world into bowlers and batters - those who think it a ghastly act contrary to the spirit of cricket tend to be willow wielders while some bowlers consider the ends (running out someone for blatantly cheating while backing up too far) justify the means.
Outlawed in one-day cricket since Trevor Chappell, on the instructions of his brother Greg, sent down a pea-roller for Australia when New Zealand required six to tie off the last ball of an ODI in 1981. Sparked a diplomatic incident and much Australian hand-wringing.
Corking a bat
Nefarious baseball practice of drilling a six-inch hole in a solid wood bat and filling it with cork or sawdust to quicken the hitter's swing. Albert Belle, Chris Sabo and Sammy Sosa are among a handful of players caught and suspended for cheating with corked bats.
Diving for the line
Shaunae Miller won 400m Olympic gold at Rio in 2016 for the Bahamas by throwing herself off her feet instead of dipping and thus pipping Alyson Felix by 0.07sec. Ungainly and unorthodox but not illegal... and it hurts.
Refusing to ruck
Cannon fodder Italy astonished England in the 2017 Six Nations by refusing to form rucks after they had been tackled, allowing their players to stand in what looked like, but were not, offside positions because the only offside line is directly around the tackle area. Led 10-5 at half-time before England worked out how to counter it. The practice was banned soon after.