In retrospect, it should have been obvious.
During matches prior to their meeting in the U.S. Open quarterfinals on Thursday (won handily by Pliskova), Karolina Pliskova and Ana Konjuh both had to deal with the jarring boom of a sound processor in Arthur Ashe Stadium, setting the stage for what happened later on Thursday.
If there was ever a perfect marriage of player and on-court distraction, it was Andy Murray and that same Inception-esque blare, Chekhov’s Gong, if you will.
Looking primed for another one of his patented half-routine/half-more-complicated-than-it-needed-to-be wins, Murray unraveled in the latter stages of his quarterfinal with Kei Nishikori after the gong-like noise went off again (unrelated to the others, according to the USTA, but similar all the same), the catalyst for losing seven straight games and control of a match that ultimately sent him out of the tournament, a sour culmination of a deeply rewarding summer:
Never mind that Konjuh — an 18-year-old serving for her first major quarterfinal – wasn’t rattled, merely startled by the disruption, because this is Andy Murray we’re talking about.
Murray, who also lost his cool over a moth (“Or is it a butterfly?” quickly became Tennis Twitter’s “What color is the dress?”), was cranky from the get-go in this one, for reasons beyond anyone’s guess. After Monday night’s demolition of Grigor Dimitrov in one of the best performances of his career, Murray was poised to go toe-to-toe with Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s final, the first in years where Djokovic wouldn’t have been a prohibitive favorite.
Instead, Murray was essentially drawing dead by the end of the fourth set, even if he had bounced back to beat Nishikori in the fifth. How so? He was simply using too much of the two vital resources that are critical to him winning these events: his legs and his mental fuel tank. Rather than the mostly composed Muzzard on display at Wimbledon, the version on court Wednesday afternoon was yelling at his box to “Shut the f*** up!” only three points in, stirring much conversation over the real impact of Ivan Lendl’s return to his camp and why such an intelligent and forward-thinking player continues to be his own worst enemy at times.
There were essentially five stages of this match:
- Murray dominates, doing everything Nishikori does, but better. Murray leads by a set and a break.
- Murray starts playing not to lose. He instead loses his lead and, after the closing of the roof, plays passively, opening the door for Nishikori.
- Nishikori’s hot streak winds down and he goes back to pressing. Murray rights the ship and starts to put the clamps down.
- Chekhov’s Gong. Murray implodes, losing seven straight games to a growing-in-confidence Nishikori.
- Nishikori’s habit of nerves strikes not once, but twice. However, Murray can’t make him pay. Nishikori proves the third time’s a charm to win.
The thing that makes this matchup compelling at this point in time, their first meeting at a major since Nishikori’s ascendance, is that both comport themselves as if they don’t belong in the elite. Whereas Milos Raonic strives to be at the top so badly that it was arguably to his own detriment at this U.S. Open, Nishikori routinely gets tight in big moments against the Big Four, losing in various fashions to Djokovic this year, losing matches decided by margins in straight sets to Rafael Nadal and, most recently, crumbling in the Olympic semifinals to Murray.
As for Murray, few things have been more captivating (or comical) this season than when he complained about Nadal taking too much time between points in their Monte Carlo semifinal (the last time Murray lost prior to the final in an event until now):
"It's actually fascinating what you let these guys get away with. FASCINATING!" – Andy Murray
— Nida (@nidssserz) April 16, 2016
I love Andy saying what you let "these guys" get away with. Mate, you're Big 4 and world number two. You are "these guys".
— Frith (@pluckyloser) April 16, 2016
Even though Murray has talked about pushing his hardest to pass Djokovic for No. 1, it’s as if both secretly feel like they don’t belong, when in reality, they do.
That’s what made this match so vital for Nishikori, who had lost 16 straight matches to top five opponents until beating a weakened Stan Wawrinka in Canada in July.
He didn’t need to win to validate himself, but another meek loss would have meant two full years of them since his life-changing run to the final here two years ago. Since then at majors (excluding Wimbledon due to injuries): straights to Wawrinka, five set loss as favorite to Tsonga, five set loss as favorite to Benoit Paire, crushed by Djokovic, stunner loss to Richard Gasquet on clay.
There’s really three core ways to win a match (in a non-strategical sense): you take it, your opponent gives it to you, or the third, an often critical one to surviving an off-day at a major (which absolutely will happen during a two-week tournament): you walk through the door.
Two years ago, Nishikori took those matches at the U.S. Open en route to the final. Sure, Djokovic was bothered by the heat and not at his 2015 apex yet, but Nishikori took the fight to him. The staggering part of Nishikori’s last two seasons isn’t that he has failed to replicate that lofty standard, it’s the inability to step through the pathways others have laid for him.
That changed on Wednesday, at least for a day. It’s not a discredit to Nishikori to say that he won first and foremost because Murray self-destructed. After all, both players heard the gong and only Murray allowed it to rattle his frame of mind. Murray’s self-sabotage was amplified by Nishikori staying the course.
Going back to the five stages of the match, Murray opened the door both in the back half of the second set and in the fourth set. However, Nishikori did what he has historically been unable to do: he seized his good fortune, at both openings to boot, and was rewarded with his best win in two years, which in some ways is a win that may be even more satisfying than reaching his first career Grand Slam final.
2014 came with no expectations, as he hadn’t played that summer and wasn’t even in the top 10. This came amid the weight under so many disappointments, even outright failures. Regardless of how the rest of his week shapes up, Kei Nishikori leaves this U.S. Open, and 2016, with a career-reaffirming win under his belt.
Murray’s loss triggered some pretty significant history for the Big Four era:
— This U.S. Open marks back-to-back Slams with no matches between two of the Big Four, after previously happening at every major since the 2010 French Open.
— Speaking of the 2010 French, this is the first major since then to feature only one of the Big Four in the semifinals. Here it’s Djokovic; there it was Nadal after Jurgen Melzer came from two sets down to beat Djokovic, Robin Soderling avenged his loss in the 2009 final to Roger Federer, and Tomas Berdych took out Murray.
— This is the first hardcourt Slam without the Big Four comprising at least half of the Final Four since the 2007 Australian Open. That was just the second major as a seed for both Djokovic and Murray. Neither had debuted in the top 10 yet.
Juan Martin del Potro’s run ended in the second men’s quarterfinal on Wednesday, falling to Stan Wawrinka, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. Del Potro always looks like he can’t go on much longer, but it was actually true in this match, as he wore down in the third set and was broken for 5-3. With hindsight, his chances were gone after donating back a break lead in the opening set and dropping the tiebreaker.
Del Potro’s serve and forehand faltered more and more as the match progressed, with Wawrinka eventually becoming more comfortable with how to play del Potro’s backhand slices. That didn’t stop what remained of the 1 A.M. Arthur Ashe crowd, a heavily pro-Delpo contingent, from giving him an emotional send-off: