The road back to peak form is seldom straight and, in the Californian desert, it can be very rocky – as Andy Murray knows only too well.
The path he has taken to today’s fourth round at the BNP Paribas Open has been winding and filled with potholes and unexpected obstacles. No matter – the Scot is one match away from a spot in the quarter-finals and, at this stage in his season, that is not to be sniffed at.
He played a desperately scrappy match against Czech Jiri Vesely on Monday, the sort that he will want to forget as quickly as possible and that he will hope his coach, Ivan Lendl, took little notice of from his home on the other side of the States.
There were times when Murray played well, there were times when Vesely played well but those times never coincided. And then there were times when Murray did not play well. Not very well at all.
“The most important thing today was that I won,” was the best Murray could say of his day’s work. He felt fresh enough after nearly three hours on court but he knows he will have to play a lot better from now on if he is to get anywhere near the sharp end of the tournament.
The next obstacle in his path is big-serving Milos Raonic from Canada. He, too, is coming back from injury after a seven-week break waiting for a torn ankle tendon to heal and this is only his second tournament of the year. But, for all that Raonic does not look to be particularly fit and seems to be carrying a few extra pounds, his serve is as potent as ever. He cracked down 33 aces in his first match and another 11 on Monday as he swept aside Alejandro Falla 6-4, 6-3. No wonder, then, that Murray fixed a Canadian reporter with an icy stare when he was asked what sort of challenge Raonic posed.
“I think in his first round he served like 30‑something aces,” Murray said, talking as if to a five-year-old. “That’s the challenge, basically, to get a serve back. When you do that, then can you make things happen.”
Fortunately, Murray is one of the best returners in the game so, if anyone is going to have a chance against Raonic, it ought to be the Scot. But that depends on him executing his shots and his gameplan – and he failed to do that time and again against Vesely. Murray takes full responsibility for Monday’s failings despite the fact that Lendl is not here. This week, Dani Vallverdu is in charge but, no matter who is running the show, Murray knows that it is up to him not to fluff his lines on court.
“The way that I played today, I wasn’t shanking balls, I just didn’t have any rhythm on the court,” he said. “I was just missing balls. That isn’t down to anyone that’s sitting in the stands, that’s just down to me executing the shots properly. I don’t think having Ivan here would have helped me play better.
“I [have] made the final here before and I have played well at tournaments when Ivan hasn’t been around. Most people would agree that the best work you do is in the build-up to tournaments and in training and, the last few years, I have gone over to Miami and trained and spent a lot of time on the court training with him.”
Murray has played Raonic three times, all the matches coming in 2012, but, while the Canadian won at two small events in Barcelona and Tokyo, Murray walloped the big man when it mattered at the US Open in the fourth round, a fact not lost on Raonic.
He is taking nothing for granted, even if he has kept a close eye on Murray’s recent struggles. He said: “The one thing that stands out is he beat me at the most important one out of them all, and he did that quite handily.
“Obviously, he went on to win his first grand slam, so I know what he’s very capable of and I know what I’m capable of. You obviously do your homework. But he’s in his situation where he didn’t play for a big chunk of time and I’m in mine, so I’ve just got to really buckle down and focus on myself and make sure I do my things well, and then change a few things that I may need to facing him.”
On the rocky road through Indian Wells, Raonic is a particularly large boulder. But, if Murray has his eye in and can get his return game firing on all cylinders, a place in the quarter-finals should be his.