IT IS rare in the middle of a grand slam tournament that Andy Murray has a chance to enjoy himself.
Even when he wins the title, he only allows himself to enjoy the moment when all is done and he has some time to himself. But as he muscled his way into the quarter-finals of the French Open yesterday, he was loving it.
He played his best match of the tournament by far and one of the best clay-court matches of his career to push aside Fernando Verdasco 6-4, 7-5, 7-6. By his own admission, he was the underdog going into the showdown – Murray had a 9-1 career record over the flashy Spaniard but they had never met on clay and it was the slow and frustrating surface that was supposed to give Verdasco the edge.
But, when it came to it, the Wimbledon champion put on a display of outright aggression coupled with patience and control to run rings around his rival. For the neutrals, it made for a fabulous afternoon’s entertainment; for the Murray fans, it opened up a raft of possibilities here. Gael Monfils in the next round for a place in the semi-finals? Who knows what the coming week may hold.
After finishing his five-set epic against Philipp Kohlschreiber on Sunday, the world No 8 knew that he would be feeling the strain yesterday. He could not afford to let himself get drawn into a dogfight, another four- or five-hour slugfest that would exhaust his reserves and leave him vulnerable in the latter stages of the match. Instead, he came with a plan of attack and executed it almost perfectly. Mixing offence with defence, stepping in a pasting of the lines and the corners to run Verdasco ragged, he was also mixing it up with slice and drop shots. Verdasco did not know whether he was coming or going.
“I was trying to play more aggressive because I knew I’d be a bit tired in my legs,” he said, “and, most of the time, the balls went in which doesn’t always happen. I think that was my best match of the tournament so far. It was an unbelievable atmosphere and I really enjoyed myself out there. We played some really great points. I was a bit nervous at the end so I’m glad I managed to get the win.”
He had cause to be nervous, too. For two sets, he had created chances and taken them efficiently and purposefully but in the third set as he tried to secure the double break – and, effectively, end the match – he could not convert his opportunities. In all, he had 12 break points in that set but managed to take only one of them (and converted only four of 19 break points overall).
No matter, he got the break in the opening game of the third set and so was in pole position as he raced for the finish line. But as he chased that second break – and three break points had escaped him – Verdasco went to close out his service game. He hit what he thought was a service winner. He went and took his seat at the side of the court. And then the umpire, Pascal Maria, called for him to serve again; the line judge had called the ball out as Murray had gone to play his return and Maria wanted them to play a let. Verdasco went berserk and, effing and blinding, he demanded to see the supervisor. That was when Murray quietly went up to the umpire and conceded the point, giving Verdasco the game.
“It’s a very grey area because the call came before I made contact with the ball,” Murray explained. “If the call comes before you make contact with the ball, then it’s a let. Because if someone is shouting ‘out’, it can obviously interfere with how you played. But it was a great serve and I mis-hit the ball. It didn’t go in. I gave him the point.”
A few minutes later, Murray must have been regretting his sporting gesture as Verdasco broke him in the very next game. The Spaniard started throwing everything but the kitchen sink at him and as they headed for the tie-break, Murray was getting edgy but once into the decider, he took charge and dropped just three more points as he headed for his quarter-final appointment with Monfils.
The charismatic Frenchman cruised past Guillermo Garcia-Lopez 6-0, 6-2, 7-5, much to the delight of the crowd on Court Philippe Chatrier, and he will carry those 15,000 boisterous souls with him when he takes on Murray tomorrow. Paris is his home town and Roland Garros is where he loves to perform.
“I think in the grand slams he’s played his best tennis here by far; he loves playing in front of a big crowd,” Murray said. “He’s a great athlete. Maybe the best we have had in tennis. And, yeah, it’s going to be an exciting match. I’m sure there will be some fun rallies. There always is when I have played against him.”
The two men have known each other for a lifetime, first meeting as juniors when Murray was ten and Monfils was 11. Since then, they have played five times with Murray leading the rivalry 3-2 but with honours even at a win apiece on clay. And Monfils’s win came at Roland Garros on Court Philippe Chatrier back in 2006 when the Scot was still a spindly teenager and struggling with back spasms even then. This time, they face off as the grand slam champion against the local hero, a match-up that will have the old stadium rocking.
“Obviously it’s difficult, but it’s a great challenge,” Murray said. “It’s more like a Davis Cup atmosphere. I’ve played Richard Gasquet here a few years ago and played him (Monfils) as well. And, yeah, it’s an intense atmosphere, but, yeah, you can also feed off that as well. I’m looking forward to the match: it’s the quarter-finals of a slam. I don’t care whether no-one in the crowd wants me to win or everyone wants me to win.”