IF they remember at all, most blokes get their girlfriend a card and bunch of flowers on their birthday, often from the petrol station on their way home from work, but Andy Murray is no ordinary bloke.
The US Open champion and Britain’s most successful player since Fred Perry dispensed with the usual fripperies and, instead, dedicated his 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 win over Radek Stepanek at the Shanghai Masters to his other half, Kim Sears. Signing the television camera lens at the end of the match, he wrote a little birthday note to her. That should earn him a few brownie points back home.
“I didn’t tell her I was going to write that,” said Murray, who will meet Roger Federer in the semi-finals today. “I hadn’t really thought about it until I finished the match. It’s my guess she was surprised.”
You would have thought that Murray had had enough surprises for one day: the man he had beaten four times previously was galloping towards the semi-finals before Murray managed to stop him in the nick of time. Worse still: Murray has never been beaten at the Shanghai tournament – he is attempting to win his third consecutive title – and yet here was the 33-year-old Stepanek making the champion look ordinary.
Then again, most players find Stepanek a handful even on a good day – and this was certainly not a good day for the Scot. Looking sluggish and out of sorts, he could not make so much as a dent on the Czech’s defences in the first set and it took fully an hour to get anywhere near Stepanek’s serve and he had to wait until the fourth game of the second set to reach his first deuce point.
Only then did he find a way to step into the court and go for his shots and only then did he find a way to take control of the rallies. Even then, Stepanek was not finished and as Murray let three break points slip away from him at the start of the deciding set, the Czech broke in the next game. That was the cue for the world No 3 to pull rank – he won 20 of the last 25 points. “I just managed to turn it around in time,” Murray said. “I actually played very well I thought the last ten, 15 minutes of the match. But it was quite scrappy, the first couple of sets. For me, the beginning of the third set was what was most frustrating. I played a couple of really poor shots I would hopefully not normally make on points like that.
“He got that game. Then I got broken the following game after a couple long rallies. He had some unbelievable gets. That period of the match was tough.
“I started going for my shots and dictated a majority of those at the end of the match. Obviously I needed to because he was playing with a lot of variety, making it hard for me. I was a little bit tentative on some shots. I allowed him to come forward. When I managed to push him back behind the baseline, I started to open up the court better and just had a little bit more intensity at the end of the match.”
At least Murray was feeling a little better than he had earlier in the week, even if did not look like a well man. Still trying to shake off a virus infection, he was gulping down air after long rallies and could not find the spark he needed to ignite his game until deep into the match.
“I just picked the bug up on the flight,” Murray said. “I had a sore throat and swollen glands. Then it kind of went down to my chest and I haven’t been able to get rid of it.”