We seem to have been here before: Andy Murray is one match away from the French Open final and standing in his way is the muscular Swiss Alp, Stan Wawrinka. He is not the tallest peak in the locker room range but he is a devil to climb nonetheless.
Last year, Murray played the clay court match of his life to beat Wawrinka in four sets to reach his first Roland Garros final and he knows that he will have to do the same again tomorrow if he is to stand a chance. The Swiss absolutely flattened Marin Cilic yesterday 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 and has yet to drop a set.
The world No 1, meanwhile, has been getting better as the tournament has gone on but yesterday he spluttered and stuttered before finally getting the better of Kei Nishikori 2-6, 6-1, 7-6, 6-1.
It was not the same dominating performance that had seen the Scot past Juan Martin del Potro and Karen Khachanov in the previous rounds but it was a battling, cussed, riled-up effort that had his followers biting their nails at times. But, ultimately, they will have been relieved that the fire and the passion is back; Murray was safely through to the semi-finals and now anything can happen.
“Stan’s played fantastically this tournament so far,” Murray warned. “Last year he was also playing very well and I had to play one of my best matches on clay to win. I know it will be very tough, but I’ll fight as hard as I can, hopefully play some good tennis and make it a tough battle.”
That he was in such a position seemed all but impossible in the first set and at the start of the second until the umpire decided to get involved.
Carlos Ramos, sitting in the chair in judgment over the two quarter-finalists, has had a belting week. In the space of five days he had managed to get under the skin of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and now Murray. Keeping a close eye on exactly how many seconds the Scot was taking between points – the limit is 20 – he gave Murray his first time violation warning in the third game.
This did seem a little harsh – usually the umpires have a quiet word with any offenders and encourage them to hurry up a bit before they start handing out official rebukes. Ramos, though, was determined to run a tight ship and the world No 1 was duly chastised. His response was to drop serve and do little of note as Nishikori ran away with the set.
At this point, Murray was deeply average – tentative, hitting short and looking lacklustre – while Nishikori was running around like a jet-propelled whippet, taking the ball early, cracking his backhand and hoovering up those short, aimless balls that Murray was leaving for him. This did not bode well.
That was when Ramos decided to liven things up a bit (he does like to let people know that he is in charge, does Carlos). As Murray was serving at 1-1 in the second set, he had thrown the ball up but before he could get a racket string to it, Ramos docked him a first serve for taking too long. Murray was gobsmacked.
“I’ve never seen that,” he said. “I’ve been on the tour a very long time and I’ve never seen that.”
Ramos explained his case: “On every single point you are over time.”
Murray was still stunned: “But why did you give it to me when I’d just thrown the ball up?”
Ramos was not to be moved: “Because you were already on 26 seconds.”
That, though, proved to be just the boot in the derriere that Murray needed. Playing a bit faster and putting more bite in his shots, he held serve and then broke Nishikori twice in succession. Suddenly there was a new purpose to his play, a new aggression and eagerness. Now he was not allowing the Japanese to push him back from the baseline, now he was not giving Nishikori as much time as he had enjoyed in the opening set. And now Murray had levelled the score at a set apiece.
“I needed to start putting a bit more pace on my shots,” Murray said. “He was dictating all of the points in the first set, making me move a lot.
“It was a bit windy today so the timing was a bit difficult, but once I started to get into a better rhythm I was able to keep him a bit further away from the baseline and that made a big difference.”
Nishikori gave it one last shot in the third set as twice Murray took the lead and twice the Japanese broke back. In the final game, he threw everything he had left at Murray to force them into a tiebreak but that was the end of him. He played an atrocious decider and while he did break the Scot’s serve in the opening game of the fourth set, he was then broken three times on the bounce.
Murray had booked his place in the last four and made his date with Wawrinka.