A pattern has emerged this Wimbledon where a challenger with a trick or a haircut or an attitude arrives on the Centre Court intent on forcing Andy Murray to give up his crown. They’ll waggle their rackets at the dour champion with the Calvinist work ethic and taunt him: “Let’s see how your dodgy left hip likes this drop-shot!”
Then a couple of hours later, all out of fancy-dan moves, the unorthodox challengers will depart with plumaged tails stuck firmly between legs. The champ’s own legs might be rocking a bit but he’ll still be the champ.
It happened again yesterday. Benoit Paire brought a beard, a belligerence and a boast: “On the court I naturally produce blows that would never come to the minds of most and when I succeed I feel proud.”
The blow he’d utilise would indeed be “le drop” and early on it worked. But Murray, once he’d stoked the boilers, became the Flying Scotsman. The tram lines down the sides of the court were his tracks and relentlessly he’d chase the balls down, petrifying his opponent into giving up on the crazy idea and the game, the No.1 seed progressing to the quarter finals 7-6 (7-1), 6-4, 6-4 where he will face American Sam Querrey, pictured, tomorrow.
This was Murray’s best performance of the tournament so far. It was still a grind and a slog and he’s by no means moving as well as in last year’s triumph or striking as true or as hard – but he’s going deep into the competition now and, by being Cool-Hand Andy on the decisive points, he well and truly psyched out this rival.
Last Friday, Italy’s Fabio Fognini tried to drop-shot Murray to death, or at the very least make him collide with the barley water dispenser in the No.1 seed’s desperate attempts at retrieval. As a tactic, it worked until it didn’t. Murray’s defence was astonishing and yet typical of him. He was a winner that night despite making hardly any winners.
First game here, though, there was a winner. And quite a few more before the two hours 21 minutes were over, including Murray’s best shot of this Wimbledon to date, a cross-court missile on the backhand when Paire thought his stinging drive was going up on the scoreboard. If his opponent had embedded his racket in the grass at that moment it would have been almost understable.
In 2013 Paire smashed all the rackets in his bag, spitting out his loathing for Wimbledon. He has a pop star girlfriend, the French Rihanna who calls herself Shy’m and who has emotive lyrics which translate: I don’t like protocols, the fixed ideas. Four years on and currently the world No.46, he seemed more ready to embrace the tournament and its rules – and the chance to topple Murray. His skills, when he concentrates on them, were heavily-trailed beforehand.
Because Murray is part of a Big Four which has dominated Wimbledon for so long – Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal are the others – the idiosyncrasies of his rivals this year have been pounced upon and drooled over in loads of column inches. But maybe they’ve been overwritten. Murray, if he’d noticed Paire being described as “the flamboyant Frenchman,” would have been well within his rights to remark: “What, another one? Aren’t they all?”
Certainly Benoit’s opening service-game was a thoroughly mixed bag: two double faults, three deuces and – revealing his severe disinclination to get involved in long rallies – two stonking forehands.
He was showing signs of swagger. The beard was like that of a hipster barista who rolls up his trousers and goes sockless. The temper was well in check and there was no need for it when he broke Murray, the latter’s first attempt at a drop-shot having too much bounce. Next game he thought he’d show Murray how it was done and must have been flabbergasted by the response: thundering charges which gobbled up the yards and Murray, on a 25-match winning streak against Frenchmen, broke back.
Before this there would have been the usual stand-to-stand scrutiny of Murray’s fluidity of movement. Was he really hunched and hirpling or was our high anxiety getting out of control in the sticky heat? Was it just the way he walked? Did he stride like this to glory in 2013 and 2016?
Benoit persisted with his fiendish plan and next game – after achieving three breaks and being urged on by shouts in the crowd of “Allez!”– he regained his advantage. Sometimes he over-dropped but having sensed Murray was not at his sleekest, was persisting with the move. Then Murray did coax him into some longer rallies and an extraordinary public-park ballooner from Benoit levelled the match.
The man from Avignon twice tossed his racket despairingly at the ball as Murray bossed the big points. Paire was still dropping shots – and dropping points. Two more lost-cause balls were hounded relentlessly and sent back over the net and Murray romped the tie-break.
“I wanted to see how he was moving,” Paire said of his tactic. “But he was running every time on the drop-shot. He was putting the ball every time where he wanted. He can run like a rabbit.”
Paire began the second set by losing his serve and, over-cooking his shots, he seemed to be in the midst of a monumental sulk, although behind that highly impressive beard, where last week’s flying ants could easily have entered and never returned, we couldn’t be entirely sure.
He hadn’t hit a winner for ages or dropped for a while and would go on to serve 12 double-faults – but he suddenly broke back after Murray smashed limply. Back came Murray with his most stunning pick-up of the match. It looked like the set might see-saw some more but the nerveless Murray saved four break points to clinch it.
The Flying Scotsman could chug through the third set, Paire having pared down his game by finally removing the drop-shot. Murray’s serve, a bit wobbly at the start, was in the groove now and he marched into his tenth consecutive Wimbledon quarter-final on the back of his tenth ace.
Okay, maybe not marched. More like hobbled smartly. But he’s there. And the beaten man thinks he can go all the way.
“He has not a lot of of confidence but for sure he can win it,” said Paire.