Australian Open: Rivals take French leave as Andy Murray marches on

Andy Murray hits a return against Gilles Simon. Picture: AFP/Getty
Andy Murray hits a return against Gilles Simon. Picture: AFP/Getty
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THERE are mutterings among the French that should Andy Murray go on and win the Australian Open in the coming week, the French Tennis Federation ought to bill him for a percentage of his prize money.

In the past four days, the massed ranks of French players have been marching through the draw and creating havoc, all of it working to Murray’s advantage. On Saturday, it was Jeremy Chardy who knocked out Juan Martin Del Potro, the No 6 seed and the man who was supposed to have caused Murray problems in the quarter-finals. A matter of hours later, Gilles Simon took nearly five hours to stagger past Gael Monfils and by so doing, he not only removed a potential danger from Murray’s path (Monfils beat Murray the last time they met), but he also exhausted himself.

So, when Simon appeared on court yesterday to face Murray, he brought with him a nine-match losing streak against his opponent and a box of tissues. The tissues were for the runny nose – he is suffering from a virus – while the losing streak served to remind him of his true place in the grand scheme of things: when he is fighting fit, he cannot beat the Scot; when he aches all over and can barely drag one foot after the other, he does not stand a chance. Sure enough, Simon was dispatched 6-3, 6-1, 6-3.

When the draw was first made 11 days ago, there was much sucking of teeth and biting of nails: Murray had been given a lousy run through the rounds. But with each passing day, the draw has opened up more and more for the Scot and now he finds himself in the quarter-finals without having dropped a set and barely having broken a sweat. This seems almost too easy.

“Some slams I’ve started off really, really well and some I had some tough patches in,” Murray said, not sounding too bothered one way or the other. “Wimbledon last year there was one set maybe, against Karlovic, or an hour-and-a-half period where it was tight. The Baghdatis match was fairly tough as well.

“Sometimes at the Australian Open I’ve started really well and got through to the second week without dropping a set. It doesn’t really matter – Roger hasn’t lost a set either yet and I’m sure will be happy with where he’s at, so you just have to wait and see whether you’re ready to up it when the time comes. But I hope I will be ready.”

He ought to be ready enough for the challenge of Chardy tomorrow. With a 4-1 winning record over the Frenchman, his only loss came in Cincinnati last year when Murray was still recovering mentally and physically from his Olympic exploits and was keeping everything in reserve for his assault on the US Open. That one loss counts for nothing.

The only slight concern is that Murray has not played particularly well in the last couple of rounds. Then again, he has not needed to.

Playing Simon yesterday was as much a mental challenge as a physical or tactical one. Knowing that his opponent was ailing was a distraction rather than a green light to go for the kill.

“I kind of knew going in it was sort of mentally quite tough because you’re thinking, is he going to be OK? What’s the match going to be like?” Murray said. “You’re almost expecting it to not be that challenging because he was obviously struggling big-time physically.

“So you’re not necessarily right in the zone for the match and rather than just wanting to concentrate on your tactics and how you’re going to play, you are kind of thinking about your opponent and how he’s going to be feeling and that’s what was kind of tough today.

“But I think, I felt the first round match I played well, second-round match was tough because of the conditions and you want to finish the match as quickly as possible. Today, like I say, you’re kind of worrying about your opponent rather than worrying about what you’re going to do on the court.”

For Chardy the whole experience of playing Murray in a quarter-final will be new. He has never got this far in a grand slam event before and, at the age of 25, he is just hoping that he can make the most of it. The forgotten man in the crowd of Tsongas, Gasquets and Monfilses, he is blinking in the spotlight and just wishing that the moment never ends. But he, too, is not at his peak – he hurt his knee playing doubles on Sunday and had to call for more treatment yesterday as he beat Andreas Seppi 5-7, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.

“Today I have the pain in my knee,” he said. “After I lose the first set, I say, no, I have to forget it because I can be in quarters. If I have pain everywhere in my body, doesn’t matter, I have to play and try to find the solution to win today. So I forget my pain and I just be strong in my head and that’s it.”

Chardy’s progress has been closely monitored by one Serena Williams. She practised with the Frenchman over the Christmas break – they were both training in Mauritius – and she firmly believes his current form is due to her influence. Well, she would.

“I was really, really happy for him,” Williams said, having booked her place in the quarter finals with a 6-2, 6-0 walloping of Maria Kirilenko. “I thought he did a really good job. He beat Del Potro. He won today. So now we’re both in the quarters. I always say it’s because he hit with me.”

But not even Williams is willing to bet against the US Open champion and the world No 3.

“Well, I don’t have a good record against Murray myself,” she said. “I mean, he has such a big serve and such a big forehand. I’m a big Murray fan, as well. I mean, the guy is awesome. He’s running everything down.”

And if Murray can run down Chardy with the same speed and ease that he chased off Simon, the French Tennis Federation might just start putting that invoice together in preparation for the weekend.