May 24, 2016
What a relief for Andy Murray fans! Staring defeat in the face, he dug deep to keep his hopes of French Open glory alive.
‘I knew that potentially playing a fifth set, anything could happen. I fought extremely hard and now I get a chance to play tomorrow,’ he said with a tired sigh.
To say he did it the hard way is something of an understatement. Two more mistakes and he would have been out. Instead he won the final set against Radek Stepanek 7-5, his final shot a wonderful cross-court forehand under pressure.
We can talk about the heavy conditions, the slow pace of the court, the low bounce and even the lack of a steely coach in his camp.
But in theory Murray should still have waltzed through his opener against Stepanek, an opponent known for his experience and his doubles expertise – but not much else these days.
Until now, that is. Stepanek, aged 37, seemed to defy time. He was of course helped by the overnight break. But some of his tennis was sensational as he rolled back the years.
‘It was unbelievable what Radek was doing,’ Murray admitted. ‘I don’t expect to be able to do that at his age and I’m just glad to be through. He has always been extremely difficult to play and he hardly missed any volleys until match point.’
The Czech was totally fearless and played as though he knew this could be his last singles match at Roland Garros. The results of this uncompromising approach were very nearly devastating for Murray.
John McEnroe says the unpredictable Scot has never had a better chance to win Roland Garros. We’ve been saying much the same thing in our previews.
For a while on Monday, however, that kind of assessment had suddenly looked wildly optimistic. Even on Tuesday, the result was very much in doubt. Stepanek led 5-4 in the fifth and Murray was scrapping for survival at 30-30 and deuce, two points from oblivion. Eventually a drop-shot and an ace saved him.
You wondered how long the veteran could keep up the pace and the extraordinary level of tennis he was producing. How much more pain could Stepanek inflict upon a man supposedly his superior?
Slowly but surely, however, Murray’s class shone through and his refusal to panic was admirable. The pressure must have been immense. The potential for self-doubt considerable.
The tide seemed to take forever to turn. That’s when Murray’s faith in his own ability really counted and kept him calm. He exerted the pressure, waiting for signs that his opponent might finally be starting to crack. At last, he did.
Murray had completed a magnificent comeback and thus avoided the embarrassment of a first-round exit against a player ranked 129 in the world.
But you still had to wonder how it was he had been dragged so close to the edge and caught so cold initially.
Two sets down at one dramatic stage of the contest, Murray battled back to take the third in emphatic style. He already had a break in the fourth before the players had to come off for bad light on Monday night.
With conditions still tough beneath the Parisian clouds, Murray closed out that set on Tuesday and then prepared for the all-important decider.
Stepanek held first, thanks to a stunning 27-shot rally and a brutal ace. Murray soon had his own first game on the board, though he was only two mistakes from losing it.
They slugged it out, each man holding his nerve, until Murray had to serve to stay in the match. That crisis averted, he finally sensed fatigue in his opponent, who double-faulted and then fired into ther net.
Before long an epic struggle was over and Murray had scraped through 3-6, 3-6, 6-0, 6-3, 7-5. He’ll have to be on his game next time to avoid another draining marathon. They can catch up with you in the end.
Murray fans will hope he can be more ruthless now that he is at least up and running.
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