True, Murray is now into the fourth round of the BNP Paribas Open in California but it was a struggle. And for those of a certain age who were hoping to cheer the Wimbledon champion to a straightforward victory against Jiri Vesely, the world No 77 from the Czech Republic, it was all a bit too much. What began as “oohs” and “ahhs” ended as gasps and gulps as the wealthy and the wizened reached for the inhalers and medication. It took two hours and 46 minutes of nail-biting terror, but Murray was through 6-7, 6-4, 6-4.
It had all started so well for the world No 6 – his young foe was clearly nervous playing on the big stage against a two-time grand slam champion. As the 6ft 6ins Vesely fluffed and flapped and tried to find his bearings, Murray was 3-0 up with two breaks of serve to his credit in less than two minutes. This was like shooting fish in a barrel. But then it all started to go wrong.
Throwing in one careless, sloppy service game, he offered the nervy Czech a lifeline. It was all too easy and, taking his eye off the ball for a moment, he donated his serve with a high bouncing, mid-court drop shot attempt that had “hit me, hit me now” written all over it. Vesely hit it and suddenly the match changed.
It was Vesely who was standing on the other side of the net when Oli Golding won the US Open junior title back in 2011. At the time, it was a good day for British tennis but since then Golding has battled his way to No 352 in the world pecking order and the Czech has scampered up to No 77 as fast as his inordinately long legs would carry him. Having jumped 176 ranking places last year to break into the world’s top 100 just two days shy of his 20th birthday, he was given the ‘Star of Tomorrow’ award by the ATP. Tomorrow would have been fine for Murray; Vesely proving to be the star of yesterday’s encounter was beginning to get Murray’s goat.
Since he returned to full-time employment after his back surgery, the various bits of Murray’s game have slowly clicked into place. His serve and backhand was the first to make an appearance, closely followed by his movement, but the killer instinct – that which separates the champions from the players – is still on the sick-list.
Instead of shaking off that momentary lapse – he was still a break to the good at this point, after all – and applying the thumbscrews to the inexperienced Vesely, Murray got ratty. And the more frustrated he became, the more confident Vesely grew. With nothing to lose and huge bragging rights to gain, the Czech kept plugging away and waiting for Murray to implode.
It had been the same against Lukas Rosol in the previous round – Murray waited until he was a set and a break down before he woke up, lifted his game and started to boss his lesser ranked opponent around. Unfortunately for Murray, Vesely is a better player than his compatriot and no matter that the Scot had screwed down his concentration a little tighter, Vesely was not to be brushed aside.
Then there was the problem of his feet – Murray had come to the court with his toes taped to protect some nasty-looking blisters and the longer he was made to run around the back of the court, the more they hurt.
He called for the trainer to remove the taping in the second set but that did not really help. He was not his usual, spry, swift self and Vesely was having a field day.
Even when he managed to get himself back into contention by winning the second set, Murray could not exert any authority over his young rival. They traded breaks of serve throughout the third set like kids trading baseball cards until, finally and with much relief, Murray edged himself to a 5-4 lead.
Now was the time for Vesely to show his mettle and serve to stay in the match. And when it came to the crunch, he did not quite have the nerve to do it – on his third match point, Murray got his reward as Vesely dumped his final shot in the net. He heaved a huge sigh of relief; the watching crowd were just glad that they were still breathing at all.