Britons find clay feet, as Murray beats Thiem, and Norrie downs Kwon

Rio Ferdinand makes admission about Man United star

US Open champion Emma Raducanu only made her professional debut on clay a couple of weeks ago, winning one of her two matches in the BJK Cup in Prague. But this smart young Briton with the fast footwork and clean ball-striking certainly did not take long to adapt to the red stuff.

She continued to learn quickly and confidently, even without the guidance of a permanent coach, reaching the quarter-finals in Stuttgart, and now in the Madrid 1000—one of the women’s most prestigious tournaments—was making a great impression with the Spanish fans to reach the third round.

Raducanu showed great resilience and focus in her opener, coming back to win a tight first set, 7-6(3) and then sweep the second, 6-0. Her second match looked a little trickier against Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk, ranked 49, and with a win over the Briton last October. But Raducanu had little trouble, winning this one, 6-2 6-1.

In a draw that has seen many of the top seeds already out of contention, the Briton is the only top-10 seed left in the top half of the draw. However, there were still dangerous non-seeds remaining, not least another young US Open champion in 2019, Bianca Andreescu, who only recently rejoined the tour after a gap since last autumn’s north American swing in October.

Following a good workout in Stuttgart last week, the Canadian also impressed this week with wins over Alison Riske and then No6 seed Danielle Collins.

In the bottom half, No8 seed Ons Jabeur faced No11 seed Belinda Bencic, and beat her in a fine three-setter, but perhaps the biggest challenger there was unseeded Simona Halep, a two-time champion who beat home favourite and world No2 Paula Badosa—and then beat No14 seed Coco Gauff. She would be Jabeur’s next test.

However, Raducanu was not the only player flying the British flag at the Caja Magica. Fellow world No11 Cam Norrie was one of four Britons in the men’s draw, and he had seen Dan Evans and wild card Jack Draper beat strong clay players in the shape of Federico Delbonis and Lorenzo Sonego respectively, in tidy, straight-sets scorelines.

Things were set to get harder, however: Evans next faced either Jenson Brooksby or Roberto Bautista Agut, while Draper faced the formidable No6 seed Andrey Rublev.

Now, though, it was Norrie’s turn, and he had just missed out on the first-round bye enjoyed by the top eight seeds. The Briton had a No9 seeding, and would face Korean qualifier Kwon Soonwoo in his first match.

Norrie’s biggest titles, and his only one this season, had come on hard courts: He surged among the elite dozen in the world with his Indian Wells Masters title last October, and put a great run together this February with the Delray Beach title and final finish in Acapulco.

Come clay, he did not defend his Estoril title but did make the quarters in Barcelona, though it was a marathon effort ending in three three-setters, one of the them three and a half hours long.

So although he was expected to beat qualifier Kwon, and although renowned for his stamina and fitness, he would not want to repeat that pattern. After all, beyond Kwon was John Isner and then, most likely, the newest star in Spain, Carlos Alcaraz.

Kwon got off to a flier, breaking to love and taking a 3-0 lead. But from 4-1 down, Norrie began to find his range on what had become a cold and wet afternoon. Under the roof of Court 3 in Madrid, he scored three straight games before Kwon held to edge a 5-4 lead again. Norrie saved a couple of set points, too, as he upped his level, refused to miss a ball, and instead broke Kwon to love. He served out the set, 7-5.

Norrie made a strong start to the second set, pressuring the Kwon serve early, and broke to love in the seventh game. The Korean, though, returned to the aggressive tennis he had opened with, taking the ball early and breaking straight back to love. But just as in the first set, Norrie got the timely break to serve it out, but this time it took him four attempts. A big cross-court winner finally did the business, 7-5, in what had proved to be a gritty test.

He afterwards admitted to having some illness since Barcelona, and to finding the conditions under the roof a challenge. Now he will have to try and master the Isner serve: The American fired 30 aces in his two-set win over Filip Krajinovic.

The headline men’s match of the day was still to come, a highly-anticipated first-round contest between former Madrid champion and former No1, Andy Murray, and the returning Dominic Thiem.

Wild card Murray initially planned to miss the clay season in favour of grass-court preparation. He changed his mind, but the former champion must have questioned his decision when he saw the name of his first opponent.

Both men had been forced to take long absences through injury. Murray had a hip replacement in 2019, and his slow return to fitness was impeded by the Covid closure in 2020, and then himself picking up the virus and an injury to start 2021.

In 2022, he reached the Sydney final, but since then had not won more than a match in each tournament. And even if he overcame Thiem, it would be a big ask to break that pattern in Madrid, with No14 seed Denis Shapovalov lurking, and beyond that, most likely the world No1 and multiple champion, Novak Djokovic.

For Thiem, too, this was an unkind draw, a first meeting with his fellow Major champion since 2019, and in only his fourth match since returning last month after almost a year’s absence with a wrist injury. And he, too, contracted Covid just as he was making his comeback.

The last time that the two players met, Thiem was ranked No5, now he was 91, while Murray had clawed his way from outside the top 500 back then, to 78 now. Certainly both had produced fine tennis in Madrid in the past: Murray a two-time champion, Thiem twice runner-up. But what of this latest test of each other’s form, fitness and durability?

Murray got things going with a quick hold and almost got an immediate break, but they stayed level for five games. There, Thiem’s signature forehand went astray, the errors cranked up, and Murray took advantage to break, 4-2. He went on to serve it out, 6-3.

Thiem pressed harder in the second set, mixing things up, finding his range, earning three break points, but Murray held on in a marathon second game and swiftly turned the tables to break, 2-1. He never lost his advantage despite a couple of long games, and served it out, 6-4, after more than an hour and three-quarters.

As he told Thiem at the net, the Austrian’s return is still ‘work in progress, it takes time’, but for Murray, this was clearly an emotional win, and his fans will hope the first of a few in Madrid.

Source: Sport Review


Author: Ellen Garcia