WINSTON-SALEM — The first weekend of the Winston-Salem Open had plenty of drama from unexpected sources.
As the tournament returned to action after a one-year break due to the pandemic, the players at the center of the main storylines were a pair of men who weren’t mentioned when the tournament field was first announced.
Andy Murray received one of the tournament’s two remaining wild-card spots — fellow Brit Daniel Evans got the other one — a few days before play began. The former world’s No. 1 and two-time Wimbledon champion became the biggest name in the Winston-Salem field.
“To round out our direct entries into the main draw this year with these two gentlemen is a real treat for our fans,” said tournament director Jeff Ryan. “We are so proud to present this high-quality field to the community, and we know our event may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for so many.”
Murray was schedule to open against Nick Kyrgios, but the matchup dissolved when Kyrgios withdrew from the field at the last minute, citing an injured left knee.
“I was in Florida, in Bradenton rehabbing and training, and came here obviously excited to play here. I love the facility, it’s really great,” Kyrgios told a British paper. “To play Andy Murray, one of my good friends and a tennis icon, would have been amazing, but obviously I have to look after my body. I just didn’t feel as if the risk was worth it today. I’ve got to be more cautious with it, keep rehabbing, keep training.”
That left tournament officials scrambling to find a replacement opponent for Murray and set the stage for the other unexpected appearance in the spotlight.
Former Demon Deacon Noah Rubin won his opening match in the first round of qualifying for one of the final four spots in the field. Rubin, who played for Wake Forest in 2014-15 and turned pro after his freshman year, beat JC Aragone in three sets for his first tour win since February of last year.
“It’s been a year and a half now since I won a match, and it was so nice to do it at home,” Rubin told the tournament website. “Getting to see the black and gold again was so surreal. I miss it. It really does feel like home.”
Fellow former Demon Deacon Eduardo Nava lost in the first round of qualifying, dropping a three-setter to 2015 Winston-Salem Open finalist Pierre-Hugues Herbert.
Rubin’s run on his former college court came to an end the next day when former world’s No. 10 Lucas Pouille staged a dramatic comeback.
Rubin won the first set 6-4 then jumped out to a 4-1 lead in the second set. He went on to reach match point later in the set, but Pouille battled back and evened up the match with a 7-6 win. Rubin jumped out to a 2-1 lead in the third set, but Pouille swept the final five games to take the set, and match, 6-2.
Despite playing the two-hour match in the August heat, Rubin would get the chance to head back out onto the court. While he was playing, fellow qualifying losers Herbert, who lost his second match, Yosuke Watanuki and Max Purcell passed on the chance to get back into the field by stepping in to face Murray.
“It was by far the strangest situation I have ever been in before a match,” Murray said. “It’s pretty rare that you experience something new when you’re 17 years into your career.”
Facing a new opponent, even an exhausted one, created a scouting problem for Murray.
“I didn’t know if I was going to play tonight,” he told a British paper. “They said if I was playing against a qualifier then I wouldn’t play, and then I drew a lucky loser. It was tricky. It was obviously difficult for 45 minutes and then the first couple of games because you’ve gone over a strategy with your coach about the match you’re going to play and then obviously that changes.”
Rubin jumped at the chance to play, but there was no Cinderella story to be written. Murray made short work of the fatigued Deac, winning the first set 6-2 in 35 minutes then sweeping the second 6-0 in less than 25.
“Tried to put on a show, but didn’t have much left,” Rubin tweeted. “Was a brutal day, but this is tennis, and what a weird way to come back.”
“Noah was a great replacement for Nick,” Murray said. “It was great for the crowd, and I didn’t know he went to university here. It was just unfortunate he wasn’t able to give his best effort. It is a real shame tonight, but it was nice that it was packed.”