Andy Murray beats Isner to reach French Open last-eight

Andy Murray stretches to make a forehand return against American John Isner at Roland Garros yesterday. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Andy Murray stretches to make a forehand return against American John Isner at Roland Garros yesterday. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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The language might have been choice and the scowling and growling would probably have frightened any small children present but Andy Murray was through to the quarter-finals of the French Open.

There he will meet Richard Gasquet, the local hero and the last Frenchman standing at Roland Garros. Murray has won seven of their ten previous meetings, including two wins in Paris, the first of which required him to come from two sets down. As for Gasquet, who beat fifth seed Kei Nishikori, until now he had never reached the last eight at his home grand slam, but he knows he will have every ticket-holder in the Court Philippe Chatrier cheering for him.

The first set was key. I didn’t have any chances, really, in the first set until the tiebreak. And then, after that, I was starting to create a lot more chances

Andy Murray

“I’m pumped to be in the quarters of a slam,” Murray said. “Obviously the atmosphere will be tough but I don’t mind that. I played a number of times against French players here in difficult atmospheres and I managed okay. So I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

Murray had good cause for optimism after yesterday’s performance. For the sixth time in a row, he beat John Isner and his mighty serve. This time he did it in straight sets, 7-6, 6-4, 6-3 but this was the first time he had met the big man on a clay court – and Isner was on a bit of a run himself on the red stuff.

This was only the second time the world No 17 had reached the fourth round in Paris and, with his serve firing on all cylinders (by the time he was emptying his locker and booking his taxi to the airport, he had served 110 aces in four matches), he fancied his chances. But despite a top service speed of 137mph and many, many more deliveries only a fraction slower, he could not keep Murray on court for more than two hours and 40 minutes and those three sets. He was good but Murray was feisty, fired up and far, far too strong.

When it came to the fire and the fight that had been so strangely lacking a couple of rounds ago, it was back with a vengeance yesterday. But this was not Murray being grumpy and irritable for the sake of it; this was Murray forcing himself to concentrate and attack on every point. If Ivo Karlovic’s thundering serve forced him to pay attention in the last round, Isner’s serve and more varied game was going to give Murray barely an opportunity to work with. He had to be switched on and ready in every rally. Not that there were many of them. Of the 234 points contested yesterday, only 19 of them were decided over nine shots or more. And 169 of them were over in under four strokes. This was a shoot-out and the first man to blink was toast. It was no wonder, then, that Murray was roaring at himself to ‘focus’, to ‘fire up’ and to ‘come on’ throughout the match.

There were a few rude words thrown into the mix (and one moment of hilarity when he referred to himself as an ‘absolute turnip’) but the general gist was that he could not afford to let his mind wander for a split second.

“I think some of it’s a mentality as well,” he said. “Like, you win a first set, the natural thing is at the beginning of the second, it doesn’t feel as important as the end of a set. But it is. That’s just having the right mentality. It’s very, very small margins and it makes a difference, even if it’s just two or three points.”

Those few points were vital at the end of the first set. Murray had not had a sniff of a chance on the Isner serve until the tiebreak. There, he drew first blood with a cleverly worked point to force the error from the 6ft 10ins American and moved to 5-2 lead. But two missed forehands cost him his lead and then he was in a real dogfight for the set. Saving three set points, he finally closed out a second set point of his own when he got a look at a second serve, landed his return and celebrated loud and long when Isner pulled his shot wide.

“The first set was key,” Murray said. “I didn’t have any chances, really, in the first set until the tiebreak. A bit lucky on the 6-5 point [Isner’s first set point]. He had a great serve; I guessed the right way on his approach shot. That point was very important, for sure. And then, after that, I was starting to create a lot more chances on the return games. Most games I felt like I was having opportunities and wasn’t giving him any chances on my serve. So that was positive.”

The start of the second set brought the rain – and more complaining from Murray when the umpire Damien Dumusois took his time to suspend the match – but, by then, the damage had been done. Back on cort an hour later, Murray was creating increasingly more chances on Isner’s service games while, on the three break point opportunities that Isner had in the third set, the world No 2 stumped up huge serves of his own. Murray was on his way to his appointment with Gasquet with little physical energy spent and plenty to look forward to, weather permitting, in the coming days.

“I feel fine now,” he said. “The last two matches weren’t physically draining. Mentally they can be challenging because of some of the reasons I explained, about getting few chances. There are a lot of points that feel very important against Ivo and against John, but physically I feel fine.”