“We kind of had it on our racket,” admitted a crestfallen Jamie Murray, when he and his partner Bruno Soares were forced to swallow a bitter defeat against the Bryan brothers in their opening match at the O2 Arena.
Murray and Soares dominated most of the opening set and held three set points at 5-4, 40-15. But doubles is a volatile format, especially with its accelerated scoring format, and one wild shot can turn a match on its head.
That is what happened when Soares saw a nice, gentle ball floating towards him, and somehow contrived to blare his high volley a foot over the baseline. And after two more canny points from the Bryans, Bob and Mike – whose experience is such that they are making their 16th appearance at the Nitto ATP Finals – the contest was back on serve.
An emotional response now kicked in, manifested in a string of errors from Murray and Soares. Using all their experience, the Bryans grabbed a 7-5, 4-1 lead in a blur of accurate serving and razor-sharp volleys. Eventually, their opponents stopped the bleeding, breaking back and even stealing the second set on a tie-break. But they never quite regained their early fluency and the Bryans held their nerve to close out a 7-5, 6-7, 10-8 victory on the super tie-break.
The result leaves Murray and Soares with a difficult path if they are to repeat last year’s run to the semi-finals here. The Bryans may be the most successful doubles partnership in history, having won 114 titles together, but they are also 39 and less dynamic and explosive than they used to be. This year, they won two titles, while top seeds Lukasz Kubot and Marcelo Melo – who are also in the same group – landed six.
“They’re not at their peak now,” Murray acknowledged. “But today they hustled a lot of balls back at the baseline and made some reflex stuff as well. Once they’re up at the net, it’s difficult to get the ball by them.”
In the opening singles match of the day, Grigor Dimitrov fought through a gruelling contest with Dominic Thiem to make a successful debut at the O2 Arena. Dimitrov’s 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 victory, which occupied 2hr 21min, was a nervy one at times. He served for the match twice, only just inching his way over the line when Thiem missed a backhand.
This was a classical display of ball-striking on both sides, which undermined the theory that the single-handed backhand is a thing of the past. In fact, three of the eight men at this tournament use this supposedly old-fashioned technique, and the Finals are all the richer for it.
“I think it’s a very special moment for me,” said an emotional Dimitrov, who finished the regular ATP season in the top 10 for the first time. “But I hope also for the country of Bulgaria and I think for the people. Just to realise that whatever you put your mind into, if you push those boundaries every day, if you work hard, the sky’s the limit. You can dream every day. I’m a dreamer.”