Andy Murray knew he had been in a battle. It had just taken him two hours and 16 minutes to beat Radek Stepanek and start the defence of his Mutua Madrid Open title, but it had all been a bit too close for comfort. Murray won 7-6, 3-6, 6-1 but even if the third set looks like one-way traffic for the Scot, the eventual winner knew different.
“I didn’t think I played badly,” a relieved Murray said. “There are definitely things I could have done better tonight for sure. I could have made the adjustment to my game a little bit earlier. But, yeah, I didn’t play badly. I played some good stuff against a guy making it very difficult.”
Stepanek is an awkward customer on any surface at any time. At 37 years of age, he is obviously experienced and with seemingly infinite reserves of strength and stamina, he has been trundling around the globe making life difficult for any opponent for the best part of two decades.
Giving him a little extra edge yesterday was the fact that he had already played three matches in the tricky conditions before he ran into the Scot – two in the qualifying competition and one in the main draw – and so he was used to the way the ball flies through the thin air in the Spanish capital. Madrid sits 667 metres above sea level and the altitude takes a little adjusting to.
“He’s not like any of the guys that you practise with or play against much now,” Murray said. “He has a very different game style and had come in having played three matches in these conditions and some pretty good wins.”
For most of the first three games, it looked as if Murray had never set foot in Madrid before, much less was the defending champion. Before the bigwigs had had a chance to settle themselves into the posh seats, Stepanek had broken serve and held two points for a double break. Murray, meanwhile, has won a measly three points.
Fortunately, Murray was able to stop Stepanek from running away with the first set and changed the momentum of the early exchanges with one of those pinpoint accurate lobs that he can conjure out of thin air and land within millimetres of the baseline. That slowed Stepanek down, breaking the Czech’s serve, reeled him in and then it was a case of screwing down the concentration and waiting for an appropriate moment to pounce.
That moment came in the first-set tiebreak when, after an exchange of minibreaks, Murray got his nose in front for a 4-3 lead and then heaved a sigh of relief when Stepanek flapped at a forehand on set point and sent it wide of the line.
It had taken an hour but the defending champion was a set to the good and at last looking settled on the centre court.
Alas, Murray was not given much time to enjoy his lead. Just as he did in the opening set, Stepanek got the early break and before long, he had a 4-1 lead and was pulling away from the Scot. It was not that Murray was playing badly, it was just that Stepanek was playing well, he was taking chances and almost every one of them came off.
“He played very well,” Murray said. “It was not easy. He obviously started the match a little bit better than me. He was hitting the ball big up the lines. He hit a lot of lines the first set and a half to get himself in a good position.
“In the second set, the game where he broke me, I hit good second serves and he hit like four or five clean return winners in that game. Nothing you could do there. He was just going big and it was going in.
“Third set I started to play with a little bit more height. I was playing a little bit more spin, which made it harder for him. When I was getting the ball up high he started making a few more mistakes. It was a tough, tough match.”
Only in the third set was Murray able to control proceedings but even then he was fending off break points as he went to serve for the match. It had been a long night but at last the world No 2 was safely into the third round.