wHEN Andy Murray and his team rolled into the quiet retirement town of Indian Wells last week, he was promising nothing. By the time he had barged his way into the quarter-finals of the BNP Paribas Open last night, he looked like a man on a mission.
He took just 90 minutes to dismiss Adrian Mannarino 6-3, 6-3 in his best match of the tournament so far. This time, there were no lapses or dips, this time there was just a grim determination to get the job done as quickly and as efficiently as possible. He was powerful, controlled and impressive and Mannarino did not know what to do to stop him.
“I thought I played well,” Murray said. “It was a tricky match. He’s played well this year. He’s had a few good tournaments. Here he’s also had some good wins, he’s a tough guy to play against. Very unorthodox style. He has a very, very good backhand cross court. Hits it very low over the net, very flat. He can rush you, take your time away. I thought I did a good job against a tough opponent.”
Last year, Mannarino left the French Tennis Federation and struck out on his own. Fed up with having to share a coach with the other players and too old at 26 to qualify for a fully-funded coach of his own, he wanted one-to-one attention. So, he hired Eric Prodon, a fellow journeyman player who retired from the tour at Roland Garros last year. At 33, Prodon is only seven years older than his charge but his lack of experience as a mentor does not seem to matter – Mannarino reached a career-high of 36 back in January. It was not a bad effort for a man who was ranked outside the top 100 just last summer.
Mannarino has slipped back a couple of notches to No 38 in the world order this week but he has cruised through the rounds in the desert and until he bumped into Murray yesterday, he had not dropped a set.
Shy and retiring away from the court, the Frenchman hides a fiery temperament in the heat of battle. From time to time he can go nuts with a racket in his hand. He didn’t go to school and, instead, was home-schooled by his parents. And given that his father is a tennis coach, much of that schooling involved playing tennis. As a result, he is one of nature’s thinkers on court and what he lacks in power, he makes up for in touch and tactics.
Before the match, Murray had said that he knew a little bit about the Frenchman’s game. They had never played or even practised together before but the world No 4 had seen enough to know what to expect yesterday. That was hardly surprising as Mannarino plays a similar style of game to the Scot – it is just that Murray is so much better at it. That is why he has won two grand slam titles and been in six other major finals and Mannarino has yet to win a title of any description on the main tour.
Starting out carefully to see exactly what the Frenchman had to offer, Murray was taken off-guard when Mannarino had the temerity to break his serve. This was not in the script. Immediately stepping up a gear, the Scot was not about to let his opponent into the match: he started to control the points – he allowed his rival just three of 13 points following the break – and scooped up the next four games to close out the set.
The second set was a carbon copy of the first, save for the fact that Murray was on his guard this time. Mannarino held two break points in the fourth game but Murray was ready for him and clung on to his serve like a desert wanderer clings to a water bottle. Once again, he stepped up his game and this time collected five of the next six games to earn his place in the quarter-finals.
There he will find Feliciano Lopez, the 6-4, 7-6 winner over Kei Nishikori and a man Murray has beaten nine times in a row.
In nine years of trying, Lopez has only ever managed to prise two sets from the Scot’s vice- like grip.
“I’ve got a good record against him,” Murray said, “but he’s always a tough opponent because of the way that he plays and the way that he serves. “He’s also still improving. He’s been playing the best tennis of his career these last 18 months or so, and obviously had a great win today against Nishikori.
“I think these conditions here are good for him. It helps his serve a lot, so it will be a tricky match.”
Suddenly the semi-finals are getting closer and even if, publicly, Murray would never back himself to win or lose in the difficult desert conditions, he is playing like a man who has his eyes on the silverware.