He had just played one of the matches of his life against Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals, a three-hour, three-set thriller that he finally lost, late into the night, in a final tie-break.
This year, Murray’s birthday coincided with his first match instead of his last, and it turned out to be a contest of equal quality, equal drama, but with a happier outcome for the Murray camp.
It was a match-up that stirred the imagination from the moment the Rome draw was made.
The 30-year-old David Nalbandian is one of the most gifted tennis players of the last decade who, but for a string of injuries and hip surgery, may even have exceeded the No3 ranking he reached in 2006. He would probably also have won more than his 11 titles, two of them Masters crowns as well as the Master Cup. He even reached the Wimbledon final, aged just 20.
He is, in short, a man who no-one wants to see in the early stages of a tournament.
Through his ups and downs, Nalbandian has continued to bounce back, and this year has been no exception. He started 2012 ranked 86 and, by the time he returned to his first Rome in four years, he was up to 42. And although Murray had won their last four meetings, the two had never met on clay—a surface where the Argentine owns four titles and Murray none.
They locked horns in early evening with the shadows slicing through the centre of the court and it looked, in the first stages, as though the match would be just as starkly divided.
Murray opened with a clean service game and quickly earned two break points against Nalbandian which, helped by a double fault, he converted for a 2-0 lead. But the stylistic tone for the match began to emerge in the third game with Nalbandian earning two break back chances with deft, disguised drop shots. Murray held, and he countered the Argentine’s crafty tactics with the same: first a deep backhand drive, next a drop shot, now an angled winner. It was just like Nalbandian, but played just a little better.
With a 4-0 lead, though, it was Murray who went 0-40 down, and an overhit forehand gave Nalbandian his first game. It ushered in the longest game of the match as both men engaged in chess-like tactics of guile and variety that would colour the entire two and a half hours.
They tested and probed one another through nine deuces, sometimes the advantage going to Murray, sometimes to Nalbandian, first with one making a winning drop shot, then the other. They chased, defended and outwitted each other until the first cruel net cord of the match went Murray’s way and he went on to serve out the set, 6-1.
The score, as anticipated, did indeed suggest a match clearly divided in Murray’s favour, but the 45 minutes it had taken to play seven games said otherwise.
Now the sun was dipping beneath the rim of the arena, and the criss-cross reflections from the glass barriers on the opposite sweep of seats created a herringbone pattern over the court. Murray later admitted that these artistic effects had been less benign for the players
Nalbandian, though, had begun to find his length and rhythm and finally held serve for the first time in the match to open the second set, but Murray matched him, shot for shot.
They edged, with a tapestry of tennis shots, towards 4-4. Now and then, a game was won with ease, now and then with more effort—and mental effort as much as physical.
Soon, the floodlights began to supplement the natural light, though noticed only in the multiple shadows that radiated from the players’ feet. And perhaps it was the even spread of light and shadow that helped Nalbandian’s game to flourish.
Murray, serving at 4-5, moved to 40-30 with another fortunate net-cord bounce, but Nalbandian produced a drop-shot winner to level at deuce. Three times the Argentine worked a break-point: now with a soft forehand slice played short, now pushing Murray wide to ghost into the net and finally outmanoeuvring the younger, taller man to force the error. He levelled the match, 6-4.
Murray opened the third set strongly and, in the third game, created two break points. Still the Argentine found an answer, out-lasting Murray in a battle of cross-court backhands before using the drop shot yet again. He danced his way to a hold with the most feather-like drop to date, and promptly pierced the Murray defences with beautifully placed and paced ground-strokes. The pressure told, and Murray double faulted to concede the break.
Next it was Murray who pulled off the more audacious drops and he too broke serve with a high backhand volley.
The soundtrack of the contest began to speak more eloquently than any words. The crowd was entranced, sighing at the whispered slice, gasping at the nerveless drop shots, roaring at the retaliatory lobs. This was not bullet-fire tennis, it was wand-waving tennis, quiet enough, it seemed, to hear the spinning of the ball.
The coup-de-grace, when it came, was cruel. With the score at 5-5, Nalbandian faced a 0-40 scoreline, held off two of the break points, only to see one more net cord fall in Murray’s favour to seal the break.
Still the Argentine would not go quietly: He held two break points to take the match to a final tie-break but could not fend off first an ace and then a near-ace. The match was Murray’s, 7-5.
Murray survived the kind of test that Nalbandian has so often given other players. But Murray did more than survive: He fought craft with craft, smart tactics with smart tactics, touch and guile with the same.
It was a weary Murray who afterwards admitted that this had been a tough first match back after time off with a back injury: “I’m just happy to win…When you’ve not played for a few weeks or hit many balls, it’s good to get another match under your belt.”
Perhaps the net had been kind to him at a couple of crucial moments, and perhaps that was the least he could expect on his birthday.
He had, it transpired, not opened any other presents by the time he made it through his press obligations, and the day would be over in little more than an hour’s time…
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