THE nerves jangled a little louder than usual as Evgeny Donskoy played better than his ranking would suggest possible but it did not matter – Andy Murray won his first match in Indian Wells in three years and he looked very pleased with himself.
He survived a sluggish start to push past the world No 83 from Moscow 5-7, 6-2, 6-2 and set up a third round appointment with Lu Yen-Hsun.
It wasn’t the greatest victory of his career by any means but after his recent run in the Californian desert, it was still very satisfying.
“I was a little nervous at the start and he started very, very well,” Murray said. “I just managed to hang in a bit and at the end of the second set, I started to hit it a bit better.”
In theory, Murray ought to have won this title at least once. He reached the final back in 2009 and had it not been for a sandstorm whipped up by a howling gale, he might well have had the better of Rafael Nadal.
But the past two years here have not been pretty and, still dogged by the memories of losing at the Australian Open, he has failed to win a match. Donald Young made a chump of him two years ago and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez sent him packing last year.
Still, an awful lot has happened to Murray in the past 12 months and the change in him is obvious. Winning the US Open last September was like releasing the valve on a pressure cooker – suddenly Murray could relax; he had proved himself. Better still, he had proved himself to himself (he has always been his harshest critic). So when he strolled into the Indian Wells Tennis Garden this year six weeks after losing, again, in the Australian Open final, he was calm, happy and ready to play.
Admittedly, he did not look too cheery when, after just 24 minutes, he was 5-1 down to his Russian rival, and he was still looking a bit ropy when, half an hour later, he missed six break point opportunities for a 6-5 lead. But this was not the same gloom that enveloped him last year; this was just Murray feeling ring-rusty after a long training break. No need to worry, and certainly no need to panic.
Donskoy is new to this Masters series game. He may be 22 but with a ranking of 83, he does not normally ply his trade at this level of event. Last year was spent collecting ranking points on the Challenger circuit and this January he reached the third round in Melbourne so he is gradually elbowing his way up the rankings ladder.
Weighing in at a good 20lbs lighter than Murray, the Muscovite is a beanpole compared to the honed, well-muscled Scot. No matter, he likes to lean what weight he has into his forehand and. growing up idolising Yevgeny Kafelnikov, he has grand ambitions. Armed with a forehand that can knock holes in walls, he might just reach some of those goals, too.
He set off at a cracking pace while Murray looked as if he has just got out of bed. The Scot was flat-footed, he could not find his range and he was trying to take on the Russian from so far behind the baseline that he might as well have been sitting in the stands.
This did not bode well at all, and it took more than quarter of an hour before he stepped forward and gave the ball a clout. That worked well as a ploy but he did not keep at it. Only when Donskoy was about to wallop him 6-1 did the old adrenaline start to flow and, growling at himself to “come on!”, he finally managed to break the Russian’s serve. That stopped the rot and from there he was able to claw his way to level terms. Even then, when six break point chances escaped him, Murray could not find top gear and the first set was gone after 62 minutes.
Donskoy, though, is not used to playing top players, much less beating them. A set to the good, he started to get edgy, just as Murray knew he would. When he flapped at one forehand on break point, his moment in the spotlight was gone – Murray had the momentum in the second set and carried it through into the decider. The serve was more powerful, his ground strokes were hitting the targets and at last he was moving like a man who had spent the past four weeks in training. There was no way the US Open champion was going to lose a third match in Indian Wells.