Now it was the turn of No2 seed Andy Murray to feel the heat of a lower-ranked man, Argentine Federico Delbonis, ranked 53, and a man whose only big success had come on clay. Indeed the left-handed 25-year-old had only ever won one tournament from three finals, and the last of those was two years ago.
And given that he had managed just four Grand Slam and three Masters match-wins in his career until this week, there were few who predicted an upset.
Not that Murray’s record in the desert was particularly outstanding, considering he has won multiple titles at the other North American Masters tournaments in Miami, Canada and Cincinnati. In 10 visits to Indian Wells, he had made the semis just three times, advancing to the final in 2009. Factor in that last week’s Davis Cup tie, played indoors, turned into a gruelling affair of three back-to-back matches, the last one of the longest he has ever played, and Murray had some big adjustments to make.
Delbonis, with two good matches under his belt in the warm but windy conditions of Indian Wells, looked right at home from start, with Murray on the back foot as he wrestled with the left-hander’s unorthodox but booming serve. Where the Argentine was hitting close to 70 percent with his first deliveries, Murray was making 50 percent, and was broken in the third game.
Murray broke straight back, only to be broken again in the seventh game, and Delbonis served it out, 6-4.
Now Murray began to find his range, his serve, and his confidence, yet it was still the Briton who first found himself fighting off break points. He pulled off a lunging volley drop winner on serve in the ninth game, only for Delbonis to rip yet more balls from his baseline for break point. Murray survived in a purple passage of play, and converted his only break chance of the set to level the match, 6-4.
Murray seemed now to have he measure of the man he had not played before. He was reading the deep, fast forehands, and counterpunching through long baseline rallies. It earned Murray a break in the fourth game and, with two hours on the clock, he confidently held for 4-1 with a signature backhand cross-court winner.
But if the win looked to be in Murray’s bag, he was soon disabused. He tried the drop-shot play once too often, and Delbonis raced in to make pick-up passes twice in a row for break point: Murray double faulted.
A love hold by Delbonis took brought up 5-5, and now the Argentine went on the attack to earn break point. He put a drop-shot into the net, then fluffed a backhand, then netted a forehand on his second break chance. But two errors from Murray and Delbonis broke for the lead, 6-5: He had only to serve it out.
If ever a game demonstrated the weight of serving out a match for one of the biggest wins of a career, this was it. Delbonis was gripped by nerves, made a drop-shot into the net, double faulted by several metres, and hammered a forehand long on break point: It would be a tie-break.
After such a nervy game, the safe money was on Murray’s experience to race to the win. He did take a 2-0 lead, but it was short-lived. A stunning 24-shot rally grabbed the mini-break back for Delbonis, and serving at 3-4, Murray made three straight errors to hand victory to the Argentine, 7-6(3), after two and three-quarter hours.
Delbonis was understandably delighted: “I have a couple of big wins, but in this situation, was special. For that tournament, for that surface, for me [it] is the best win.”
As for Murray, he admitted that the conditions, once again, seemed to take their toll. He had made 44 errors to just 25 winners, and hit no aces at all. Talking afterwards to the tournament’s press, he said:
“I think it’s the conditions here, I have just struggled with throughout my career. I have never really felt that I played my best tennis here… It takes time to get used to new conditions regardless of where it is, but I have just never really found a way to get comfortable here. It’s a shame.”
He now heads to Miami, a much happier hunting ground that has yielded two titles from four finals. As well has having a training base in the city, he is scheduled to reunite with his family there.
Delbonis next faces the in-form Gael Monfils, who beat Albert Ramos-Vinolas in just 68 minutes, and could reach the quarters without facing a single seed.
There, he or Delbonis will face either Milos Raonic, who advanced when Bernard Tomic retired with wrist injury, or Tomas Berdych. The big Czech No6 seed beat 19-year-old Croat Borna Coric, 6-1, 7-6(3).
In the other bottom-half quarter, No10 seed Marin Cilic beat Leonardo Mayer, 6-3, 6-4, to set a fourth-round meeting with No8 seed Richard Gasquet, who has beaten him in both previous meetings, most recently in Cincinnati last year.
Gasquet came back against Alexandr Dolgopolov, who played an inspired first set but fell away badly in the decider, 2-6, 6-2, 6-1.
No5 seed David Goffin also had to fight back from a set down to beat Guido Pella, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. He now plays No3 seed Stan Wawrinka, who had to work hard to beat Andrey Kuznetsov in two sets, 6-4, 7-6(5). The Swiss has won all three of his previous matches against Goffin.