A year ago, the sensible money might have been on Andy Murray to get the better of Juan Martin del Potro today and reach the fourth round of the French Open, but this year all bets are off with the world No 1 – no one is quite sure what is going to happen next for the Scot.
The signs are promising so far in Paris: after a grim first five months of the year, there have been flashes of the real Murray on show at Roland Garros. A little like trying to start a car in cold weather, there are moments of hope – the engine is turning over and almost ready to fire – but there are also worrying graunching noises coming from deep within the engine block.
Still, after battling his way through four sets against Martin Klizan on Thursday, thinking on the hoof, rearranging his tactics to suit the occasion and still punishing the Slovak despite a misfiring first serve, Murray looks like he will get the motor running smoothly before the battery gives out.
“I wasn’t expecting to come in and play amazing after how the build-up had gone,” Murray said. “The most important thing is to get through the matches and gaining the confidence of getting through tough situations and coming through. I haven’t been doing that the last couple of months. I’ve got a couple of decent wins here and played some good stuff at times. I will get better.”
Del Potro, though, poses a new threat. When he is fit, he is one of the best players in the world but, at the moment, he is trying to shake off a groin injury. And clay is not his favourite surface. Then again, he knows Murray is not at his best and that the Scot’s game is better suited to hard courts or grass – on a level playing field, Del Potro fancies his chances.
Murray leads their overall rivalry by six wins to three but in their most recent contests last year, it is honours even with one win apiece: Murray won the Olympic gold medal match in Rio and Del Potro won in the Davis Cup semi-final in September. Both matches were brutal and in Rio, they played four sets in four hours and ran each other to a standstill.
“I think the Davis Cup one was physically tough for me as it came off the back of a long summer,” Murray said. “The Olympics was physically hard – and hard mentally and psychologically – but I had also come off a period of rest and trained and prepared for it whereas when you get to Davis Cup I’d played the Olympics, gone to Cincinnati, then New York and back for Davis Cup. That was tough.
“But he also will remember those matches and they weren’t easy for him either, they were tough for him and I will try to make it the same for him again on Saturday.”
Murray is certainly playing better than he was in the lead up to the French Open but until he builds up some momentum and starts winning regularly and with the minimum of fuss, he will have the ranking of the world No 1 but he will not have the aura of the best player on the planet.
His brother, though, believes that it will not take Murray long to flick the switch and get himself back to the level that brought him nine titles last year. If anyone knows what makes Murray tick, it is his big brother Jamie.
“Andy has had a rough year from a results point-of-view but also because his health has not been good at all,” Jamie said. “He has been really unlucky. He had his shingles, then he had his elbow stuff and then he has been ill in Miami and ill again here. He has been ill in between that. So it has not been easy – he has not had a clear run at anything. I think that has been frustrating for him. He has been unfortunate, but things can turn around fast. If he has a great tournament here, he can feel great going onto grass and have a great Wimbledon in six weeks’ time.”
So far, Murray junior has had a promising French Open but certainly not a great one. Not yet at any rate. Even so, Jamie believes a couple of matches in Paris, a couple of days’ work, could be enough to erase the memories of five months of frustration and put his brother back on track again.
“If he keeps winning, it can,” Jamie said. “He has not played amazingly in the first two matches, but he is winning – that is what matters at the start of a tournament. If he can hang around long enough, and he finds himself in the quarters or semi-finals, he knows what it takes to win those matches. So it could change fast.”
Kyle Edmund is also hoping to hang around longer in Paris having joined Murray in the last 32. The 22-year-old British No 2 has used his huge forehand to bulldoze his way to straight-sets wins over Gastao Elias and Renzo Olivo and now meets South Africa’s Kevin Anderson.
Edmund said of his forehand: “That’s my game. There’s no point in having a shot like that and not using it. I’ve got to keep taking the initiative to bully players with it when I can. I know I’m going to have to play well to beat Anderson. He’s obviously got a big game, he’s a big guy. So Saturday I’ve just got to be on it.”