There was a sense of a baton being passed at the US Open on Thursday, as Jack Draper’s excellent win offset the disappointment of yet another early slam exit for Andy Murray.
Afterwards, a gloomy Murray told reporters that, despite standing 86 places lower in the rankings, Draper would be a better pick for the British national team than him.
The graphs of these two men’s careers feel like they are pointing in opposite directions right now, and their moods were certainly very different when they came into the interview room.
Murray had just suffered a 6-3, 6-4, 6-1 defeat at the hands of Grigor Dimitrov – a result that forced him into a renewed bout of soul-searching. As he explained afterwards, “Maybe I need to accept that, at these events, the deep runs that I felt like I’m capable of – they might not be there.”
Yet Draper was full of enthusiasm at the prospect of facing the USA’s Michael Mmoh in the third round – a match which would earn him his debut in the second week of a major if he were to win it.
Thus far, Draper’s career has been interrupted by numerous injuries. But if he can straighten himself out physically, his talent is on a different level to anything we have seen since Murray himself played his first Wimbledon in 2005.
At 21, Draper is still able to walk around London without too much hassle – but that will surely change if he keeps picking off top-20 opponents. The large crowd gathered on Court 12 were immediately agog when he broke in the opening game against Hubert Hurkacz, the man who stands top of the ATP serve rankings this season.
In fact, Draper went on to break five times in 15 attempts – an extraordinarily high ratio, considering that Hurkacz normally wins 89 per cent of his service games. Admittedly, Hurkacz was not as his best, and seems to have been suffering with the stomach bug that has been going around the locker-room this week. But he was still pinging them down at speeds of up to 132mph, so this was hardly a gimme.
Draper’s serve-heavy shootout with Hurkacz occupied only 2hr 12min and saw two-thirds of the points finish in four shots or fewer. Whereas Murray was involved in a real lung-burner with Dimitrov. It took 44 minutes just to fight out the first five games, and the explanation was twofold: partly because of an unusually high number of deuces, and partly because of the vast amount of court that the two men were covering.
The match felt like a microcosm of Murray’s post-op career as a whole. Huge amounts of sweat and effort; precious little reward. He hit something like 630 shots in this match, which occupied 2hr 41min, and yet only 16 of them were winners. Even if you take Dimitrov’s slick and speedy movement into account, this suggested a lack of penetration in his game.
Afterwards, Murray seemed to be talking himself out of a place on the British Davis Cup team for Manchester (where the group stages will begin on Tuesday week). “The plan was to play,” he said, “but if I’m being honest, the other guys deserve to play ahead of me. Jack has had quite a few injuries coming in, but if he’s fit and healthy, he’s obviously playing very well.”
In the bigger picture, Murray sounded less tortured about his competitive future than he had after his Wimbledon loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas eight weeks ago. As mentioned above, he is starting to question whether he has a deep grand-slam run in him. But he also insisted that “I still enjoy everything that goes into playing at a high level.”
As Murray added, “The training and trying to improve, that’s what keeps me going. If things change and I stop enjoying that, or if in a few months’ time I was ranked 60 in the world instead of moving up, things might change.”
These sorts of questions – about the timing of retirement and the balance between work and family commitments – are still many years in the future for Draper. Yet the younger man has dealt with some awkward dilemmas himself this season, especially when it comes to knowing how much tennis his fragile body is able to bear.
This is Draper’s sophomore season on the ATP tour, after a magnificent 2022 that saw him climb 220 places to No42 on the rankings ladder. It hasn’t gone well to date, with a measly tally of 13 wins sending him back down the rankings snake to No123.
But it’s not as if the other players have worked him out – as can sometimes happen with fast-breaking talents. Rather, he’s been handicapped by hip and abdominal issues, which were then followed by the torn shoulder tendon that he suffered during the French Open. Arriving in New York, he said on Thursday, he would only have given himself a 30 per cent chance of competing in this event.
“In Winston-Salem last week, I felt something in my arm again,” Draper admitted. “I had a scan and I had a very small bit of edema in my arm, which is basically a tear. I was with my coach and physio thinking, ‘Another bit of time off?’ We were almost in tears. What more can we do?
“But when I sent the scans back home, they said that there’s a chance you might be able to play if you look after it right. So I’m very, very happy with the fact that I have been able to get out there and play, and actually my shoulder’s felt great
“It’s weird how this sport works. Sometimes you can be at your lowest point and then all of a sudden, you get on a bit of form and you’re playing great and body feels good. Hopefully, touch wood, this is going to be the start of something.”
Draper certainly has an enticing third-round draw against Mmoh, a wild card ranked No89 in the world. On Thursday, Mmoh came through a thrilling five-setter to dispose of John Isner – the man best known for his 11hr 5min marathon against Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010.
It was Isner’s last match as a professional, as he had already announced his retirement at the end of this event. “This is why I’ve worked as hard as I have my whole life, playing in atmospheres like this,” said Isner in a tearful on-court interview. “To play in front of this crowd and have the support I had is pretty special, thank you.”