HALFWAY to his third successive Wimbledon final, and already playing sublimely, Andy Murray could not have hoped for a better first week.
After dismissing his first two opponents, he was expected to face a more demanding challenge last night from Roberto Bautista Agut, but won with consummate ease, triumphing 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 to set up a Monday meeting in the fourth round with Kevin Anderson of South Africa.
A late developer at 26, the Spaniard is in the best form of his career, and won the Wimbledon warm-up tournament in Rosmalen in the Netherlands last week. But, while he now stands on the verge of the world top 20, the man from Castellon de la Plana is still several levels below Murray and the other top players, and at times on Centre Court the gulf in class was almost embarrassingly wide.
Perhaps the most significant factor about his win was the fact that Murray’s play was significantly better than in his earlier matches against David Goffin and Blaz Rola – despite the fact that it did not have to be. True, he dropped his serve for the first time in these Championships, but that was a minor blemish on a performance that was otherwise close to flawless.
There have been times in recent years when Murray has looked a shade uneasy in early-round matches. He has never come close to Tim Henman’s habit of inflicting high levels of anxiety on the home crowd, but he has taken his time to get into the odd contest. Just three years ago, for instance, he lost the first set to journeyman Spaniard Daniel Gimeno Traver in the first round.
Since then, however – or perhaps more precisely since becoming a Grand Slam winner for the first time at the 2012 US Open – he has verged on the imperturbable.
Part of that is down to good scouting: he knows his opponents’ games so well that he is able to isolate their weaknesses and immediately exploit them. But, above all, it is down to his own greater consistency as a player. That consistency was in evidence from the opening games last night, as he quickly broke Bautista Agut’s serve. That happened first in the third game, which the No 3 seed won without the loss of a point to go 2-1 ahead.
It happened again in the seventh game as he took a 5-2 lead, this time dropping just a single point. The first set was wrapped up in just 26 minutes, and Murray had yet to drop a point on first serve.
The second set began along the same pattern as the first. The Scot broke the Spaniard in the third game, and already Bautista Agut looked bewildered by the barrage that was coming back at him across the net.
As the sun dipped below the top of the Centre Court stands he took his hat off, but that cosmetic change was all he could alter as Murray continued to hold a stranglehold on the match. Broken again in the seventh game to go 5-2 down, Bautista Agut looked nothing like a man who is seeded 27th here and tipped to put Murray under more pressure than he has been all week.
Serving for the set, Murray at last showed a glimmer of weakness, and was break point down for the first time in the match. Bautista Agut converted it, too, displaying a more positive spirit than he had been able to muster up to that point.
Riled by that merest sign of vulnerability, the British No 1 hit back immediately, inflicting a third break of the set on his opponent, albeit after three break points had been saved. Two sets to the good with still just over an hour played, Murray was on the verge of having an earlier than expected start to his weekend off.
Neutrals in the capacity crowd might have hoped for more drama, or at least a suspicion of uncertainty about the outcome. Instead, they could only marvel at the quality of the champion’s play throughout virtually the entire match.
Bautista Agut could do little else, too, and in the opening phases of the third set he looked more like a helpless bystander than a man whose job it was to take an active part in proceedings. This time it was the second game in which Murray broke, as the quality of his play again went up a notch. And, as if to remind his opponent that any late resistance would be futile, he broke once more in the fourth game.
He suffered another blip then – partly through a slight lowering of quality in his service, but also thanks to some brave returning by Bautista Agut – and lost his serve for the second time in the match. A Spanish hold made it 4-2, but then almost-normal service was resumed.
With the end in sight, Murray did not have quite the level of implacable concentration of the first two sets. But he still wrapped everything up in a little over an hour and a half. Bautista Agut saved three match points at 2-5 down, but then, attempting to save a fourth, slipped while returning, leaving the court at Murray’s mercy. And mercy was not something that Murray was about to show.
A chastened Bautista Agut was off court within a minute of losing. Murray, meanwhile, stopped to sign balls, hats and anything else his fans could thrust at him, and then was off to the serenity of the locker rooms and the safety of the last 16.