As it was, he still managed to reach the semi-finals yesterday, beating Gilles Muller and his belting serve 3-6, 7-6, 6-4 and keep alive his hopes of a fourth title in south west London, but it was anything but easy. Muller, all 6ft 4ins and 14 ½ stone of him, was doing what came naturally: crack the serve, attack whenever possible and go for broke whenever it wasn’t. And Murray could barely lay a racket string on him for the best part of two sets. This was not the quick start he had been hoping for.
But then one little moment of magic in the second set tiebreak changed everything. A running forehand passing shot, nailed down the line and against the formidable Luxembourger’s serve turned the match around. It was classic Murray, it was well worth the ticket price but it had been an awfully long time coming.
“Obviously you need a bit of luck sometimes when you are playing someone who serves like Gilles,” said Murray, who will face Serbia’s Viktor Troicki in the semi-final. “I managed to read the return and basically just charged to the other side and hit a good passing shot but they don’t always go in so it was a bit lucky as well.
“I started to read the serve a little bit better in the tiebreak and at the end of the second set and that was when the match changed a little bit.”
It changed more than a little bit. With the bit between his teeth, he played a fine tiebreak, broke at the start of the third set and never looked back as he roared into the last four of the championships. With Wimbledon just over a week away, it was a stern test and he passed it with, in the end, flying colours.
“It’s always tough when you’re behind,” Murray said. “I wasn’t getting many chances on his serve so it was a bit frustrating. In the second set, I was holding my service games well but wasn’t able to get the break through. Definitely towards the end, I started to relax more, return better and play some really good tennis at the end. Hopefully I can carry that form into the semi-final.
“I’ve got a chance to win the event – all of the guys in the semis do – but I’m in a good place just now. Physically I feel good and obviously with Wimbledon around the corner, it’s always good to pick up some wins so I’m looking forward to the next couple of days.”
Muller is having the time of his life at the moment, ranked 48 in the world and making his way to the business end of tournaments around the globe. Just last week, he was in the semi-finals in ‘s-Hertogenbosch and so came to Queen’s Club with plenty of grass court play under his belt. And looking at the chance to reach the last four here, he gave it his best shot.
While Muller was thumping down the winners, on the other side of the net, Murray was not looking happy. Grumbling and chuntering away to himself as the match began, he just did not look game for the fight. He was not doing too much wrong but he was not doing anything stunningly well, either. He could not return the big man’s serve, he did not know how to control the all-out aggression of Muller’s game plan and within a few minutes he was a break down.
This sparked a momentary recovery from the Scot – a couple of break points manufactured – but it was not to last. Murray was soon being pushed around again and the set had escaped him. What to do?
Slowly but surely, Murray dug in for battle. He began by keeping a tight grip on his own serve and, dropping just four points on serve throughout the second set as they headed towards the tiebreak, he did not give Muller any room for manoeuvre. That was the first step but there was still the overwhelming problem of Muller’s serve. How on earth was he going to break that?
The crowd was beginning to shift uneasily in their seats. Murray was playing better now but he still did not look as if he could hurt his rival – this was not in the script. Desperate measures were called for.
After such a flat opening set, the Scot was markedly more animated in the second. He started jumping around on his returns, moving his position and sowing a seed of doubt in the big man’s mind. A bit like a goalkeeper playing mind games with the penalty taker, Murray was trying everything in his power to get something on his returns, to get his tormentor to miss.
As for Muller, despite his power and aggression, he kept doing the same thing time and again. There was a distinct feeling that if Murray could get him into a tight corner, Muller would not be able to come up with a plan B.
Sure enough, with that flashing passing shot at the beginning of the tiebreak, Murray drew first blood. He had taken a point from Muller’s serve and he was 2-0 up. A backhand volley a few moments later and he was 3-0 up and on his way. And, as so often is the way, once the second set had been wrapped up, Murray’s confidence soared, Muller’s dipped ever so slightly and the Scot earned his one and only service break to take control at the start of the third set.
From there, Murray looked like a three-time former champion and one of the favourites to win the Wimbledon title while Muller returned to his day job: a good but not great player who has never won a trophy on the main tour in 15 years of trying.
It had taken the Scot almost two hours to do it, but he was into the semi-finals. Yet, had he played throughout the match the way he played towards the end of the second set and into the third, it could all have been over a lot sooner. So next time Murray starts handing out advice, he would be well advised to listen to what he is saying. He talks a lot of sense, does Murray.