THE draw from hell has been forgotten, the cramp issue has been resolved and Andy Murray is through to the fourth round of the US Open. But it has been anything but easy.
The 2012 champion managed to turn a potential straightforward, straight-sets win into a four-set, two-and-a-half-hour nail-biter but he eventually got the better of Andrey Kuznetsov 6-1, 7-5, 4-6, 6-2 and make his way into the second week of the tournament. That is something on an achievement given the draw he was handed at the start, but Murray is still trying to find top gear in New York – and he will need to be at his best as the sharp end of the tournament approaches.
The week had not started well for the former champion and he seemed keen to make up for lost time. His well-documented struggle with cramp in the opening round had puzzled him and he was determined not to let it happen again. As a result, his team had gone through his eating and drinking habits in forensic detail and made minor adjustments. He was also not prepared to let the conditions affect his well-being and even though it was a warm and pleasant afternoon yesterday, Murray was using the ice towel at the change of ends and was taking on as much fluid between games as seemed sensible.
Just to add to the degree of difficulty, Murray was back out on the Louis Armstrong Stadium, the scene of some of his more difficult struggles at the US Open. He is not sure why, but he never plays well there and has been dragged into some ugly dogfights on that historic court. This time, he was ready for the worst from the off and set about his business with purpose and conviction from the very first point.
“I got off to a good start, which obviously helped,” he said. “I had a bit of a cushion when he started to get back into the match.
“He played some good stuff at the end of the second and all the way through the third. I’m happy I stayed solid. It was tough.
“I feel better than I did in the first match. Conditions are a little bit more pleasant. I made sure I ate properly and drank properly.”
Kuznetsov does not look like a world class athlete – he stands 6ft 1ins and weighs just 156lbs dripping wet. If he turns sideways, he all but disappears. But put a racket in his hand and the Russian can become a bit of a bully. He moves well and for all that he has no weight to put behind the ball, he can still give it an almighty swipe when he feels like it. Eyeing up this thin but nimble opponent, Murray set off at full speed. He was clattering his forehand, serving well and mixing up his tactics to leave the younger man guessing. It took fully 17 minutes before Kuznetsov could get a game on the board but that merely delayed the inevitable by a few minutes. Murray was not going to give the young lad a chance and looking every inch a man with his eye on the latter stages of the event, he was quick, clinical and efficient in wrapping up the set in just 30 minutes.
The second set was equally one-sided as the world No.9 grabbed the early lead and headed swiftly towards a two-set lead. And then he dropped his serve. This was not in the script. Furious with himself for being so careless, he cussed and growled and gave himself a severe talking to. Some of the crowd may have blushed at the language used, but the self-inflicted rollocking did the trick as Murray regrouped, got back to work and finally broke back and got his two-set lead.
Nothing, though, is ever simple with Murray. By this stage in the match, Kuznetsov was playing eyeballs out. What he was throwing at his more experienced rival was all he had and, really, it should not have been causing the Scot too many problems. But Murray was now getting annoyed with himself, with the court and with everything around him. The focus and clarity of thought that had won him the first set so easily had gone and Kuznetsov was like a piece of gum stuck to his shoe. Murray could not shake him off and that fact was making him angry.
He came back from 4-1 down in the third set and, at last, seemed to be cruising when for some inexplicable reason he made a handful of duff decisions – the swing volley that missed the line was one of the poorer ones – and ended up losing the set on a double fault. This time, he did his ranting in private and, taking himself off for a bathroom break, he cleared his head, vented his frustrations and got back to work.
This time there was to be no mistake – Murray was going to pull rank. He broke twice in succession at the start of the fourth and even if he did drop his serve (cue a face like thunder), he broke straight back and served out for the match with the minimum of fuss.
At least Murray can consign the past three rounds to history – the second week of a grand slam is like a new tournament and, despite his trials and tribulations in recent days, Murray is still standing. It has not been easy but he is still standing.