The smell of newly mown grass, the sound of clay courters tumbling in the early rounds – there is nothing like this time of year on the tennis circuit. And for Andy Murray, this week at the Aegon Championships means dealing with the big blokes with bigger serves – and so far, he is doing just fine.
Yesterday it was Fernando Verdasco, nearly 14 stone of solid Spanish muscle, who was removed 7-5, 6-4 and today it is Gilles Muller, the world No 48 from Luxembourg who blasted his way past Grigor Dimitrov 6-4, 7-6 to get to today’s quarter-final. In two rounds, Muller has already thumped down 56 aces so Murray knows that he will need to be on his toes this afternoon. Should Murray win, he may find himself playing John Isner in the semi-finals tomorrow – and Isner has served 57 aces so far this week.
Against Verdasco, the Scot set out at a good gallop, nipping to a 3-0 lead but then allowed himself to be led astray. Verdasco started thumping his forehand and trying his luck while Murray threw in a duff service game and his lead was gone. Had it not been for Verdasco’s wayward serve – seven aces but ten double faults – Murray may have been kept on court longer than the 92 minutes it took him to win.
In the end, it all came down to good old fashioned grit: at the end of both sets, Murray clenched his teeth, screwed down his concentration and forced himself to get the job done. It was not his finest hour but it was not bad for only his second match of the year on a grass court.
“I thought it was fine,” Murray said. “It wasn’t perfect, but I felt like I dug myself out of a few difficult situations when I was behind on my serve, especially in the second set. I played some good points there: a few aces right in the right spots, a few on to the line at big moments.
“I felt like I raised my game or my intensity at the end of the sets, I felt I played a little bit better when I needed to there. But I will definitely need to make sure I start a bit sharper than I have in the last couple of matches, because I played a couple of sloppy service games early on. When you start playing against the big servers, you can’t really afford that.”
Today’s big server is another left-hander and one whom Murray knows of old. They both spent their formative years training in Barcelona and now Muller is coached by Jamie Delgado, an old friend of Murray’s. As a result, Murray has watched quite a bit of Muller’s play recently and while the two men are not close friends, there is a mutual respect and affection between them. Muller certainly seems to hold the world No 3 in high regard.
“Everyone knows Andy is a great player,” he said. “He’s been playing really well, especially this year. I think he’s back on where he was when he was winning grand slams. So, it’s going to be a very tough match for me but also a very good test. It’s those challenges that I’m working for to play those matches on the big courts against the best guys in the world.
“He’s very impressive. Back then [in Barcelona], I knew he was very talented, but seeing him now, you can see how hard he worked to get there. He’s a good example for being in great shape. This has been helping him a lot to win very tough matches. His dedication and his passion for the game is really big, because there is not many guys that work as hard as him.”
Muller is something of a loose cannon, as is his thundering serve. Now aged 32, he is a veteran of the tour and yet he feels like he has just been given a new lease of life. Two years ago, while Murray was winning Wimbledon and making history, the man from Leudelange thought his career was over. A serious elbow injury kept him away from the courts for the best part of six months and he knew that if his comeback faltered or he picked up another injury then he would have to retire for good.
He spent his time at home working diligently in the gym and, with the help of his team, got himself into the best physical shape of his life. If he was going to try and come back, he was going to give it everything he had.
“I think this has been helping a lot also,” Muller said. “Before that, I had a lot of big injuries so it’s been lots of ups and downs. I feel now for the first time maybe in my career that my body is really, really fit, and I’m able to perform good tennis every week.
“Back when I was injured, I was 30, so I kind of knew it was my last shot, because if I wouldn’t make it back or if there would be another injury, then there is a good chance that would be it.
“I have two kids at home and a wife so I kind of have to make it happen, also. Otherwise it’s not worth travelling and leaving them all the time. Also, to be honest, these two injuries that I had, I had a big one in 2010 and another one in 2013, it’s strange to say but it also kind of helps. When you cannot perform the tennis, cannot be in the tournaments, cannot travel, you’re kind of missing it and you’re seeing how nice it is, you’re missing the nice things, because sometimes when you play week in and week out you’re complaining, oh, this is too much and not really enjoy it. I enjoy being here playing these tournaments, and I think this is something helping me a lot.”
With nothing to lose and having the time of his life, Muller could be a handful today. Then again, Murray is easing into his stride at Queen’s Club. His first round against Yen-Hsun Lu helped him find his feet on the grass, Verdasco helped him raise his intensity. If Muller can help him hone his returns, Murray should be almost ready for Wimbledon by the close of play.