Andy Murray’s return to clay proved to be a heartwarming experience as he lost in straight sets to Stan Wawrinka in the first round of Roland Garros.
The 33-year-old Scotsman was well below the level of 2015 champion Wawrinka, who took a 6-1 6-3 6-2 victory.
Murray’s exit came after Britain’s number one Dan Evans was defeated to Japan’s Kei Nishikori in a fluctuating five sets.
Evans lost in all three main draw appearances at Roland Garros following a 1-6 6-1 7-6 (7-3) 1-6 6-4 loss.
British number three Cameron Norrie and qualifier Liam Broady must carry the flag in the men’s singles.
Murray struggling to return to clay
Excitement and a sense of disbelief greeted the draw between Murray and his compatriot three-time Grand Slam champion Wawrinka – whom the Scotsman faced in his last match on clay more than three years ago.
For Murray, it was a remarkable twist of fate that even left him “amused”. He hadn’t played on the surface since a brutal five-set semi-final against Wawrinka at Roland Garros in June 2017.
It turned out to be the onset of hip disease that left him needing two major surgeries and on the verge of retirement last year.
Wawrinka, 35, has also seen his career stall with a knee injury in recent years and this has led to a lot of intrigue about how a poignant reunion between the two Roland Garros veterans would play out.
In the end, it didn’t end up being a big competition as 16th seed Wawrinka ruthlessly dismissed a Murray out of his kind.
The Briton had beaten Wawrinka when they met in the European Open final in Antwerp in October, but a repeat result never seemed likely.
The Swiss climbed up the rankings after finding form and fitness, showing why in a one-sided first set where he broke serve three times and won two-thirds of the points.
Murray’s first serve percentage was down to just 21% and that was punished by Wawrinka, whose heavy hitting was too much for Murray to handle.
Even though Murray’s serve game improved slightly, he continued to appear flat and unable to awaken the spirit that has seen him shoot games so often in the past.
Murray later said he was trying to be calmer on the court after regularly showing frustration at recent Cincinnati Masters and US Open games.
“It was something that was approached to me and I tried to keep my emotions in check,” he said.
“I don’t know if it affected me in any way or not, but that’s probably why it was calmer than usual. ”
Wawrinka maintained his level in the second and third sets as he continued to punch holes in Murray’s defense, finishing with 42 winners as he beat the win in one hour and 37 minutes.
The game was played on a cold evening under the new spotlight on a Philippe Chatrier open court, but Murray said conditions were not a factor for his below par performance.
“I didn’t play well. I served less than 40% of the first serves on the court, which is just not good enough against anyone, especially against someone as good as Stan.
“You want to serve in the 60%, that kind of area. You won’t see many players serving less than 40% the rest of the tournament. “
Evans still looking for an elusive Roland Garros victory
The 30-year-old from Birmingham admitted he couldn’t have gotten a much more difficult draw than Nishikori, who is ranked one place below the Briton after injury issues in the 35th place in the world.
So it turned out. Once the obvious disappointment subsides, Evans will be able to rejoice in a gritty display where he continued to hang on and show flashes of his quality.
Evans admits clay isn’t his favorite surface and, with Nishikori not quite at his peak, it has proven to be an engaging and unpredictable battle between the two.
Evans looked more comfortable in the drizzle at first, which allowed him to start faster in a 29-minute first set.
With the event taking place in the fall rather than its usual location in May-June, the very different conditions were a big talking point ahead of the tournament.
Evans and Nishikori were both wrapped up in hoodies and long sleeves during the warm-up, with the Japanese player continuing to look cold in an uninspired first set where he won just 12 points.
However, the match came back in Nishikori’s favor in a second set that mirrored the first game, and then Evans had to fight to force a tiebreaker in a third that lasted almost an hour and a half.
That momentum continued in his favor as Nishikori’s level dropped again in fourth and it led to a decision maker no one would have dared to predict.
Nishikori, however, has a remarkable five-game winning record – ranking 23-6 in this one. And, after surviving a 3-0 Evans fight, he again showed his keenness to get through the decisive moments.
Trailing 30-0 to 5-4, Nishikori stayed focused and increased the intensity to shatter Evans’ serve to secure the victory in three hours and 49 minutes.