MATCH POINT: Zverev ends Murray's bid

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“He’ll certainly go in as the overwhelming favorite,” Andy Murray said of Alexander Zverev before their third-round match in Indian Wells on Tuesday. “But if I play a high-level match, I’ll be right in there.”

Murray was right on all counts: He played a high-level match, he was right in there, but the overwhelming favorite still won, 6-4, 7-6 (4).

Unfortunately for Murray, he never reached his highest level. The 34-year-old played just well enough to make himself frustrated that he couldn’t quite find the Top 5 game of his glory years. He played just well enough to come up one shot short.

Murray led 3-0 in the first set and 3-1 in the second set, and had a point to go up 4-1. He came up with brilliant drop-lob and drop-volley combinations that few other players in the world could put together on a regular basis. Then he followed them up by sending easy forehands over the baseline and easy backhands wide. Murray ran down balls like a player 10 years his junior, hit a game-winning defensive lob on one point, and elicited a missed smash from Zverev on half a dozen others.

Zverev posted his first win in three attempts over the former world No. 1.

Zverev posted his first win in three attempts over the former world No. 1.

Yet Murray couldn’t match the German in the bread-and-butter aspects of the encounter that mattered most. Zverev hit 35 winners to Murray’s 19, was much more prolific at net, winning 22 of 35 points there, and had a 10-m.p.h advantage on his first and second serves. The neutral rallies inevitably ended up with Zverev in an offensive position in the middle of the court, and Murray in a defensive position, chasing the ball from one sideline to the other. The final point of the match might have summed it up best for both players: Each ended up at the net, and after a crowd-stirring flurry of face-to-face volleys, Murray sent his last one a few inches wide.

The match was a throwback to the pre-Big Three days of the ATP, when 34-year-old legends were supposed to scratch and claw and use all of their shot-making guile, but still lose to taller, stronger, faster, more confident 24-year-olds. This is how the tennis generations change over, and the sport evolves. But Murray is part of the ageless Big Three generation, and while he likely won’t ever pass Zverev in the rankings again, you also have the feeling from this loss, like his five-set loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas, that he has one more upswing left in his career, and that he hasn’t reached its peak yet.

As for Zverev, he says the slow conditions in Indian Wells aren’t helping his game, which is based above all else on him winning points with 130-m.p.h. serves. But he has still mostly seemed to be on autopilot so far; the power and consistency in his everyday game have been too much for the variety of Murray and Jenson Brooksby. As hard as they tried, and as much as the crowd tried to will them on, neither ended up having an answer for Zverev’s bigger serve and heavier ground strokes. Next up for him will be either Gael Monfils or Kevin Anderson. Even in these conditions—or any conditions—Zverev is tough to beat right now.