His opener against the big talent of Vasek Pospisil was followed by a player who posed an entirely different kind of challenge, No26 seed Philipp Kohlschreiber.
Subsequent seeds could also turn on high-quality shot-making tennis—Ernests Gulbis and Fabio Fognini—and lurking in the quarters could be one of the biggest names of the next generation, Kei Nishikori. And all that before the best player in the world, Novak Djokovic.
There were, it should be added, several reasons for optimism among the huge band of fans that supports Murray in the USA. He was reunited with his coach Amelie Mauresmo for the first time since his final run at the Australian Open, where he eventually lost out to Djokovic. He was riding a wave of confidence after a tie-winning performance in Davis Cup in front of his home crowd. And he had left Pospisil standing in the second round for the loss of just four games.
If Murray needed an extra boost, it came in the unlikely shape of the slight No38-ranked Frenchman, Adrian Mannarino, who had first put out Fognini and, just as Murray began his match on Centre Court, had also put out Gulbis.
However, there was another reason why Murray’s hot afternoon match had drawn a good crowd. The last time he played the nimble, classy 31-year-old from Germany, their match became one of the best Grand Slam contests of 2014.
Remarkably for two men who have resided in the upper ranks for so many years—Kohlschrieber has been a near-permanent fixture in the top 30 since 2007, peaking at 16 in 2012, while Murray is once again back among the top-four—they had met only twice before.
Their first, five years ago, was an easy win for Kohlschreiber in Monte Carlo, and the second was that mighty match last year, in the third round of the French Open. It would last over four hours and go, eventually, to Murray, 12-10 in the fifth, but Murray would remember that he had been a break down in the fifth, levelling just as bad light stopped play. When they returned the next day, both had break chances before the match was decided in the Briton’s favour—but Murray had been sorely tested.
Since then, Murray’s return from his back surgery at the end of 2013 was complete, and now was the form man, and playing on his favourite hard courts. Kohlschreiber, for his part, had not started the season well—though his tennis in his 6-3, 6-1 opener against Tim Smyczek displayed all the craft, flat penetration and fine angles that the German can create on a good day.
But the form book stood firm in the first set, and after a love opening hold of serve from Kohlschreiber, he would not win another game. A running forehand winner from Murray converted his first break point and he held to love for 4-1. He painted the corners with some huge baseline hitting to bring up more break points for 5-1, and after 25 minutes, served out the set, 6-1, having made only four unforced errors.
In the second set, it was again the German who came under pressure first, facing break point after a double fault in the fifth game. But Kohlschreiber was now starting to find more rhythm and precision, and his confidence and attack increased. He made a bristling return-of-serve winner to earn his first break point, and although Murray held, the German was soon on the attack again.
The eighth game would last 14 minutes, run through six deuces and five break points, the last of which, courtesy of a netted Murray forehand, Kohlschreiber converted when another Murray forehand went wide.
The German now served for the set, but would his sometimes wayward confidence see him through? Indeed it could, with a pair of shots destined for the highlights reel. He picked a smash out of the air for a terrific angled winner, and then picked up a reflex backhand flick off the baseline to make a cross-court winner. An ace to finish, and he was level, 6-3.
On paper, there was not much between them in terms of errors and winners, but Kohlschreiber’s timing had been perfect, Murray’s errors untimely.
However the Briton switched the momentum as suddenly as Kohlschreiber had in that eighth game. The German relaxed, and a casual couple of games set the tone for what would become a near-whitewash. A loose service game by Kohlschreiber, and he was 0-2. Around 10 minutes later he was 0-5, as Murray dismissed his only break point of the set. Kohlschreiber did get on the scoreboard, but Murray swept to victory, 6-1.
Murray admitted that he had slacked in the third set.
“I played a slightly tentative game in the middle of the second set.” But he added: “I served smart today. Philipp is not one of the taller players and having a single-handed backhand, when it’s bouncing [high] like this, I tried to use some variety and get it high, to stop him getting a rhythm. Maybe I didn’t hit loads of winners, but I forced a lot of errors.”
Murray did, as so often before, play a tactically astute game, stepped into the court whenever he could to take the initiative, and stayed positive. It made for impressive tennis.
Now he plays the man that so effectively cleared his path of Fognini and Gulbis. Murray has not played Mannarino before, but was all too aware of his improving game. The Frenchman has climbed the rankings after ending 2014 with two back-to-back Challenger titles and starting 2015 with a final run in Auckland and the semis in Delray Beach.
“He’s improved a lot over the last 18 months, at his highest ranking about now.
Talented, leftie, Frenchman—most of French have a bit flair on the courts, I’ll have to play well to beat him as he has a bit of confidence at the moment.”
Fernando Verdasco did not deal him the same favour, though he came close. Nishikori came back to beat the Spaniard, 6-7, 6-1, 6-4.
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