Benoit Paire, the Frenchman who is Andy Murray’s fourth-round opponent tomorrow, once aimed a huge Gallic shrug in the direction of the All-England Club. “I hate Wimbledon,” he declared two years ago, “and I’m glad to leave as soon as possible.”
And what of Murray, what does he think of the SW19 experience? If you didn’t know him, and were seeing him play for the first time on Friday night – witnessing all those sulks and gurns and uncontrolled explosions and Caledonian reinterpretations of Munch’s The Scream – then you might have concluded that he hates it, too. But that’s just Andy. He loves Wimbledon.
Loves those fright-night matches. Loves taking the crowd to the edge of the precipice. Loves disrupting dinner for the armchair fans. Well, he probably doesn’t, would prefer if not a more serene path to glory then definitely a simpler one – but that’s not Andy.
So, while the bearded world No.46 Paire was passing up the chance to watch his next opponent to relax at a friend’s barbecue, Murray was back on the training courts yesterday after his late-night finish against Italy’s Fabio Fognini.
Wimbledon is unusual among the Slams in having the middle Sunday as a day of rest and if you’re the champion like Murray and opening the tournament then there can be a two-day break. He was asked about the benefits of this, given his hip injury, but said: “It can be valuable if I use it well. It can be beneficial away from playing matches just to settle your body down to recover a bit. [But] I need to make sure I practice properly.
“There are things I want to work on so it’s not like I just take two days rest. I do a lot of stuff over the weekend as well and hopefully I’ll feel a little bit better on Monday.”
It’s certain that, apres le barbecue, Paire will be practising, too. And probably looking at a tape of the Murray match as well. This promises to be another intriguing tussle because Paire is feeling confident – “I think my game is good, I can do something good against him,” he said – and Murray remembers how in their only other meeting, in April last year, his world began to change.
Prior to that encounter in Monte Carlo, the Scot had experienced a stop-start season having taken time off for the birth of his daughter. Paire was serving for the match but Murray turned it around and never really looked back, transforming 2016 into his golden year. He recalled: “Afterwards I was getting asked: ‘How do you feel about your game? … It wasn’t the best tennis.’ I said: ‘Well, it wasn’t but that could turn out to be a really important match because I get the chance tomorrow to play better and let’s see what happens.’
“The next day I beat [Milos] Raonic to two and zero and then had a great match with Rafa [Nadal] in the semis even though I lost. Sometimes it only takes a match to start feeling good about yourself, to gain confidence and after Monte Carlo I just felt way, way better about my game and obviously ended up having a great season. I hope this match has the same impact.”
Murray didn’t play especially well against Paire but found a way to win. That was as important as a scintillating performance – these would come later. Against Fognini he didn’t play especially well. When he says “there are things I want to work on”, he means it. The nation hopes these are things within his power to fine-tune and finesse, that the hip isn’t beyond his control. But, being positive: just when it looked like his night was about to get longer and even more problematic, he won five games in a row, saving five set points, to put the feisty Fognini back in his box.
Murray admitted his movement wasn’t its best, that he felt “off balance” during the match, but takes encouragement from the grand finale. “I played better at the end of the fourth set than I did for most of the match, really. Even the first and third sets [which Murray won] it wasn’t like I played great. But I won and got through it. That’s a really positive thing. Finishing strong gives me that little boost.”
Murray has a good record against French opponents, even when giving them head starts. “I don’t know why [that is],” he said. “There have been lots of matches I’ve won against French players from losing positions. There have been a lot of close matches and I’ve just managed to get through. But I’ve no idea why.”
Paire is yet another flair player – this will be four in a row for Murray – and he’s never had a tournament journey quite like this one. “Against Benoit it will be important for me to serve well,” he added. “He has a big serve himself, plays a lot of serve and volley, and when you’re playing guys that are maybe a bit up and down, if you can keep consistent pressure on them by serving well and not giving them the opportunities on your own serve, that can build over time. You have to capitalise when they have little lulls and I’ll try to do that.”
The match-free weekend will enable Murray to devote a bit more time to his other role of family guy. “I’ll be around home a bit more than I would be on match days … and before she [daughter Sophia] goes to bed,” he said. But, what with physiotherapy as well as training and let’s not forget those ice baths, he’ll still be spending six or seven hours as an elite tennis player.
“It’s important I use [the weekend] properly. Get away as early as possible so I can rest up and relax… but make sure I keep my mind focused on my tennis.”