Only 22 of the top men’s singles tennis players made the trip to Tokyo for the Olympics, a reflection of the competition’s confused place in a sport already bursting with major tournaments each year. What has always been clear, though, is that most top players taking part have arrived determined to leave with a medal.
Few value it as much as two-times singles gold medallist Andy Murray, and alongside the formidable Joe Salisbury the British pair rose to the occasion in their first ever match together, dismantling second seeds Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut of France 6-3, 6-2.
As players continue to adjust to the uncomfortable heat and humidity, several struggled in the conditions on the opening day of play, including Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and men’s second seed Daniil Medvedev, despite both winning in two sets. Murray and Salisbury, however, eased through with minimal problems.
“We’re obviously really happy with how we played, but we felt good going into it,” said Salisbury. “We just had a great attitude, we had good energy together. It didn’t feel like it was our first match together. I think we gelled really well and complemented each other’s games, and I’m just happy with how we competed out there.
There was little doubt that Murray and Salisbury, who is currently part of the No3-ranked team in 2021 alongside Rajeev Ram of the United States, could suit each other well. From the beginning, both were extremely alert. Murray picked up where he left off for long periods at Wimbledon, serving accurately and providing a platform for Salisbury to demonstrate his silky touch around the net.
The match, however, was a grave disappointment for one of the greatest teams of the generation. Mahut and Herbert have won everything together. They have captured all four grand slam titles including a second French Open title at home this year, in addition to titles at World Tour Finals and Davis Cup title. Only the Olympics has evaded them, where they have never even won a match.
Jamie Murray followed up his brother with a far more taxing win alongside Neal Skupski. The pair recovered from a set down against Andrés Molteni and Horacio Zeballos of Argentina to win 6-7 (3), 6-4, 13-11, saving a match point at 10-11 in the final set tiebreak on their way to victory. They will face Japanese players Kei Nishikori and Ben McLachlan in the second round.
Elsewhere, Novak Djokovic started his pursuit of a gold medal this week by easily defeating Hugo Dellien of Bolivia 6-2, 6-2. Djokovic himself did not always look comfortable in the heat, but he moved on without incident against the world No 139. As they met at the net, the Bolivian asked Djokovic for his T-shirt and told him it was a dream to face him there. Djokovic said that he would oblige in the locker room.
After his 6-4, 7-6 (8) win over Alexander Bublik, Medvedev was the most outspoken player regarding the conditions, which he called some of the worst heat he has ever experienced. Medvedev argued that matches should start in the evening and that the 1min 30sec break between points is insufficient.
“But you have to play, that’s the Olympics, you go for the medal,” he said. “You’re not here to cry about the heat. It was really tough for both of us. We talked about this after the match on the court. It was unbelievably hot. But you need to get through it.”
In the women’s draw, Heather Watson, the sole British representative after Johanna Konta withdrawal, was defeated 7-6 (5), 6-3 by the world No 119 Anna-Lena Friedsam of Germany. Watson will hope to enter the mixed doubles with Salisbury, but their combined ranking is unlikely to be high enough to make the cut for the 16-team draw.
One of the final images on the opening day was a sad one. Kiki Bertens, the Dutch former world No 4 and French Open semi-finalist, ended her singles career at the age of 29 after Marketa Vondrousova beat her 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 in the first round. Bertens, seeded 16th in Tokyo, underwent surgery on her achilles heel at the end of the 2020, which she still hasn’t fully recovered from. Last month, she said that her motivation had waned.
Bertens is a shy, late bloomer who rose into the top five in 2019 and then suffered the heartbreak of arriving in the French Open that year as one of the tournament favourites before having to retire due to illness in the second round. It was the last French Open she played in full health.
An emotional Bertens bowed her head as she departed a singles match for the final time in the eerie silence of an empty arena. She will play alongside Demi Schuurs in the doubles competition, then she will move on.