A SCRIBBLED signature and then just the name “Bally” and heart. It was Andy Murray’s tribute to Elena Baltacha at the end of a long, hard-fought and scrappy match against Nicolas Almagro. After nearly two hours, Murray had secured his place in the third round of the Mutua Madrid Open. It was the sort of win Baltacha was known for.
“It’s been a tough ten days or so,” he said. “I kind of had an idea what was going on with Elena because my mum is obviously very close with her and her husband. So, yeah, it’s been a tough couple weeks.”
For a set, Murray was on automatic pilot – everything he touched turned into a winner while his struggling opponent could barely land a ball in court. And then, for a set, the Scot was in terrible trouble as six games ran away from him and his Spanish rival suddenly started to feel better. And then, in the final set, it was grim and it was ugly but Murray hung on just long enough to claim the victory and head into an appointment today with Santiago Giraldo of Colombia.
In his pomp, Almagro is a ferocious and fearsome foe on the clay. Willing to run until dawn, he camps out yards behind the baseline and tracks down every ball. Little gets past him and anything that lands within his strike zone is crushed with brutal force. Even the best players in the world have to be on the guard against him, as Rafael Nadal discovered to his cost just a couple of weeks ago.
No matter that he is one of the greatest clay court players the sport has ever seen, Nadal could not find a way past his compatriot in the Barcelona Open quarter-finals. And with Rafa’s scalp hanging from his belt, Almagro headed for the Spanish capital with a new sense of purpose. Unfortunately for him, he hurt his left foot along the way and after struggling through his opening match, he was visibly limping last night.
Unable to move, he could only hope that he was in the right place at the right time to thump the ball with all his might. Sometimes it went in, sometimes it hit the backstop and neither he nor Murray knew which it was going to be. That was enough to earn Murray the first set without breaking a sweat.
At 5-0 down, Almagro called for the trainer to try and work some sort of magic on his foot. For 20 minutes he had taken a pounding from the Scot and he could not find a way to make it stop. When the first set was wrapped up and Murray went a break up at the start of the second, the result seemed beyond doubt – this would be all over in minutes. That was when everything changed.
Murray’s form disappeared in a puff of red clay dust and that which had seemed so easy just a few moments before was now beyond him. Sensing this, Almagro perked up. He stopped looking glum, tentatively tried running a little further and continued to hit the ball with every ounce of his considerable muscle. Suddenly he was winning games and the world No 8 was chasing after shadows.
After four games of this, the Murray camp looked alarmed. Their man had pulled up short and appeared to have jarred his back. He flexed his leg, he rubbed his hip but he kept going. That said, the ease and speed of his movement that had marked the first set had gone and he was in deep trouble as Almagro took the match by the scruff of the neck.
“If I got ahead two love at the start of that set, then I think it could have been a bit more comfortable,” Murray said. “But when I got broken there he started playing much better. He got himself into the match. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hang in at the middle the second set.”
At last, though, he steadied the ship in the third set and, trying to keep the errors to a minimum and keep pace with Almagro, he hung on like a limpet until the end. And that is when the Spaniard finally caved in, offering up the match with a couple of unforced errors.
Murray was through to fight another day.