MELBOURNE, Australia — It was a little after 7 p.m. in Melbourne on Friday night when Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray limped, hobbled and creaked onto their respective courts for their third-round showdowns.
In Djokovic’s way stood Grigor Dimitrov, the Bulgarian once nicknamed “Baby Fed” for his flowing, graceful style, and in Murray’s path was Roberto Bautista Agut, part of the talented generation of Spaniards led by Rafael Nadal. There was also so much wear and tear accumulating for the two limping lions of the sport — one who is arguably the greatest player ever, and Murray, the former world No. 1 and fourth member of the vaunted Big Four.
Djokovic, a nine-time winner of the Australian Open, has been battling a sore left hamstring that has limited his movement and those trademark sliding stretch shots. On Rod Laver Arena, his assassin’s glare has been replaced with the worried look of a man who keeps hearing the same grave diagnosis no matter how many physicians he asks for an opinion.
Murray, whose rocking pigeon-toed walk has never been pretty, played for nearly 11 hours over 10 sets in his first two matches, the second of which finished after 4 a.m. on Friday. He fell asleep for three hours as the sun was rising, having pulled off a finals week-style all-nighter. Then he returned to Melbourne Park to have seven or eight blisters on his foot drained.
Murray also has a metal hip following a resurfacing surgery in 2019 that some doctors told him would allow him to do little more than rally with his children.
If you have ever watched a friend who has run a marathon try to descend a flight of stairs the next morning, you have a good idea of what Murray looked like during the first set on Friday night, when he lost 6-1 within half an hour. He looked like the Tin Man from “The Wizard of Oz,” his joints desperately in need of oil.
Serving in the third game of the second set, he double-faulted to give Bautista Agut the crucial break and let out a primal grunt that sounded like some combination of frustration and hopelessness. The craftiness and power, the unmatched ability to scramble and extend points that are supposed to be long over, had to be somewhere inside that 6-foot-3-inch frame, but somehow those parts of him would not come out.
“My legs were actually OK,” Murray said after Bautista Agut had sent him packing in four sets. “I was struggling with my lower back. That was affecting my serve.”
To sit close and watch Murray fully engaged in the kind of battle he relishes usually means bearing witness to a running internal dialogue. He assumes the role of the lead character in the drama, an unflinching critic, cursing himself for his mistakes, pumping his fist and shaking his racket in determination when he smacks a winner. And, of course, there is the hourslong one-way conversation with his coach and his mother sitting courtside.
There was almost none of that for the first hour on Friday night. What was the point of all that angst and self-punishment if this was all for naught? On this night, he was going to need something else.
The 2023 Australian Open
The year’s first Grand Slam event runs from Jan. 16 to Jan. 29 in Melbourne.
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He found it in two corners of Margaret Court Arena, far away from where his coaches sat, where two groups of Murray fans huddled around a Scottish flag, screaming to urge the Murray of old, or even the Murray of early Friday morning, out of him. They were the ones on the other side of his fist pumps and self-talk.
Slowly, Murray came alive, climbing out of the hole and then lacing a running backhand to save his serve at 5-5 in the second set after he had already lost the first and was staring at doom. Then came the great escape tiebreaker.
The hole at 2-5 brought out the swinging forehand volley winner and an untouchable crosscourt backhand to get him within a point. Getting out of the hole at 4-6 required surviving one of those long, nervy rallies and a ripping forehand drop-shot combination to draw even.
At 7-7, a jumping backhand return of serve gave him the edge. When Bautista Agut smacked a ball into the net on the next point, Murray stood with his hands on his hips and stared at the Scottish faithful with the flag in the corner.
This is what it looks like to go kicking and screaming into the twilight.
Meanwhile, across the entry plaza that the two feature courts share, about 100 yards away on Rod Laver Arena, Djokovic managed his ailments like a guy whose old car has a clutch and choke that needs to be handled just so to get from here to there.
After prevailing 9-7 in a first-set tiebreaker, an ill-advised split to reach a Dimitrov overhead early in the second set had Djokovic grimacing and leaning over.
A game later he was back to business, that steady drumbeat of backhands and forehands targeted at Dimitrov’s shoelaces over and over until Dimitrov just couldn’t move quickly enough to get them back anymore, much less get Djokovic on the run, which was his only hope.
Djokovic has said his leg generally feels fine at the start of the matches, but then a bad move tweaks it and things go downhill from there.
“Pills kick in, some hot cream and stuff, that works for a little bit, then it doesn’t, then works again,” he said. “It’s really a roller coaster, honestly.”
It’s all eerily reminiscent of a moment two years ago, when Djokovic tore an abdominal muscle during his third-round match, then figured out the right combination of rest, painkillers and match management to cruise to his record ninth singles title in Melbourne.
Djokovic’s night was over just as Murray was trying one last escape, this time after dropping the third set. He surged to an early fourth-set lead but could not hold it.
In almost every tennis match, a player’s feet are the ultimate tell, and as the fourth set wore on, Murray’s feet barely lifted off the ground on his serve. When he ran, he looked like he was stepping on hot coals. The flow was gone and it wasn’t coming back, and soon his shots were flying long and wide or, like his last one, into the net.
He said he was proud of his efforts this past week. “That is really, in whatever you’re doing, all you can do,” he said. “You can’t always control the outcome. You can’t control how well you’re going to play or the result. You can control the effort that you put into it, and I gave everything that I had the last three matches.”
A few minutes later, he limped down three stairs. It was time to rest.