HIS back is fine, his confidence is rising day by day and Andy Murray is safely through to the quarter-finals of the Aegon Championships. On a grey and miserable day in south-west London, that was unexpectedly good news.
The world No 2 has been desperate to get back to work for the past four weeks and watching his friends and rivals do battle at the French Open merely reminded him of how much he missed the cut and thrust of competition. While they strutted across one of the biggest stages the sport has to offer – Roland Garros – Murray trudged to the practice courts. While Rafael Nadal made history on Sunday by winning his eighth title in Paris, Murray trudged to the practice courts again. It has been a long and tedious month.
“It can be easy to take things for granted sometimes,” Murray said. “I played pretty much every slam for about seven years, and I missed it. It was difficult watching and not being there. You realise how much you love competing, and you love being around the tournaments when everything is good and you’re healthy and you’re playing every week.
“You don’t often think about it that much, and when you’re away from it and you miss one of the biggest tournaments, one of the tournaments you prepare extremely hard for and put the hard work in for, then it’s tough.”
Even when he was allowed back to work, the rain got in the way. Yet, although he has spent the past two days kicking his heels in the rain delays, warming up and then warming down again, trying to fill his time between matches, Murray is delighted to be back. And he is even more delighted that his back has survived the stop-start schedule and the damp, cold conditions without so much as a twinge of complaint.
“I feel good,” he said. “That was what was most pleasing about yesterday [being] a lot of stops, starts, having to warm up and cool down and stuff. Everything felt good, and I woke up this morning with no real stiffness, which is good.”
It took Murray more than five hours to get 98 minutes of tennis played yesterday as the tournament tried to catch up with itself after all the rain delays earlier in the week. Murray tiptoed across the slick centre court for 42 minutes to finish off Nicolas Mahut, a match carried over from Wednesday, but with rain in the air, moisture in the turf and a biting wind whipping around his delicate back, he was in no mood to take chances.
Running full tilt across the baseline, slamming on the brakes and then trying to turn on a sixpence to slap a winner could end in disaster if he was not sure of his footing. As a result, he made sedate progress into the third round and his afternoon appointment with Marinko Matosevic.
By the time Murray was back on court to face the Australian a chilly three-and-a-half hours later, the court had dried out considerably. So it was a nippier, sprightlier Murray on show for the centre court crowd (which included Pippa Middleton). The swirling wind did little for either man’s game but Murray was still far too good, too quick and too clever for the world No 65.
Thanks to the stoppages for rain, it had not been quite the triumphant return to the fray that Murray might have wanted but in a difficult week and in difficult conditions, he could not have asked for much more. Mahut had given him a thorough workout and Matosevic had been squashed in a manner befitting a world No 2 when taking on a journeyman.
“I thought I moved pretty well,” Murray said. “Normally the first couple of matches here, the court is quite slippy and that’s something I have struggled with the last few years: the first couple matches. But I thought I moved pretty well. I haven’t slipped down once. I’ve been pretty careful with my footing, even though yesterday was tough because the court was wet. That has been a good sign, and now it will keep getting better.”
So now Murray takes on Benjamin Becker for a place in the semi-finals. There was a time when a certain B. Becker of Germany ruled the roost around these parts but that was back when Benjamin was but a lad. This particular Becker flogs his way around the world with one foot on the Challenger circuit and the other on the lower rungs of the main tour.
Now ranked 105 in the world, his greatest claim to fame was ending the career of Andre Agassi in 2006. When the ageing legend finally ground to a halt, Becker was on the other side of the net, a win that propelled him into the fourth round of the US Open and earned him a heap of ranking points. His talent may not have been good enough to set the world alight but has made the very best out what he was given, although it is unlikely that he will be able to make much out of his meeting with Murray today.