Considering the top-ranked Briton arrived on the back of one of the best clay seasons on the tour, with a semi run in Monte-Carlo followed by a final run in Madrid and concluding with the title in Rome—and victory over both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in the process—he had looked far from the form that set him up as one of the favourites for the title here.
The draw might have been worse, too. Nine-time champion Nadal fell into world No1 Djokovic’s half. Murray drew first a qualifier—and Radek Stepanek is also the oldest man in the draw. Then he faced a wild card—Mathias Bourgue had not even played a Grand Slam before let alone won a match until reaching his second-round showdown with Murray.
Yet for the first time in his career, Murray was taken to five sets in both openers, which were played over a gruelling three days due to rain delays and poor light. Both men were certainly up for the fight, but the Briton admitted after coming back from two sets to one down against Bourgue: “Yes, I lost my way on the court today for quite a while… It was a big struggle, [but] I managed to get the win. You have to back yourself, which for me today wasn’t easy, because I wasn’t hitting the ball well for a long period of the match.”
Now he had what, on paper, was another winnable match against the second oldest man in the draw. Ivo Karlovic, seeded 27 and, like Stepanek, age 37, was aiming to become one of the oldest men in Roland Garros history to reach the fourth round. However despite Murray’s trials, he did at least know that Karlovic had endured trials of his own: The 6ft 11in Croat took four and a half hours to beat wild card Jordan Thompson, 6-7(2), 6-3, 7-6(3), 6-7(4), 12-10.
As Murray put it: “The positive is I play Karlovic in the next round, and physically, the average rally length will only be a few shots, maybe three, four shots max. You can’t play too many matches like this if you want to go far in this tournament. I hope to win the next one a little bit faster.”
For the Karlovic game is built on his extraordinary height and consequent serving prowess, so rallies are short, but he can also take the game out of an opponent’s hands.
Such is Murray’s returning ability, though, that he has won all six of their previous meetings—and five of their eight tie-break sets. What’s more, they had never played on clay, and while Murray’s record on the red stuff this year was outstanding, Karlovic’s was far from it: he had lost in the first round of eight of his nine tournaments this year, with his scant two match-wins in Istanbul against much lower ranked players.
And as it turned out, the Murray who opened proceedings on the warmest day of the tournament and on Court Suzanne Lenglen for the first time, was a very different animal.
He laid out his stall early with a strong opening serve, and returned at Karlovic’s feet in the next to earn three break points. The Croat levelled to deuce but a foot fault threw the big man, he double faulted and Murray broke with a lob onto the baseline.
Karlovic was clearly unsettled, whether by the conditions, tiredness or simply Murray’s returning. He doubled faulted twice in the next game, Murray broke again for 4-0, and the Briton held his own serve with an ace.
The Croat finally got on the board with a love service hold in the sixth but Murray’s serving outshone his to close out the set, 6-1, with an ace for a love hold. He had made just one unforced error in 26 minutes.
The second set took a little longer but was just as assertive from the Briton. He broke in the first game as Karlovic double faulted again. He almost did so again in the fifth, passing first on the forehand and then pulling off a backhand flick for break points, but Karlovic held through the rest of the set, leaving Murray to serve it out, 6-4. He had still made only three unforced errors.
In the third set, Karlovic upped his level another notch, and did well to hold off two break points in the fifth game after Murray placed a lob on the baseline. The big Croat would drop only seven of 29 points on first serve in the set and produce eight aces, but Murray dropped only four points in the entire set: It would take a tie-break.
Murray struck a sweet forehand cross-court pass for a 6-2 lead, and after a final 14th ace from Karlovic, he served it out, 7-6(3) in under two hours.
The speed and decisiveness of the win will no doubt feel all the sweeter for the style of the win. Murray did not face a break point, made only four errors, and lost only eight points on his first serve in the match.
He explained after the match: “Especially at the end, it was very close in the third set. I got off to a quick start and against someone like Ivo, that’s important. He fought right to the end and made it very tough. I’m obviously glad to win the tie-break and get off after a fairly quick match.
“The return has normally been the strongest part of my game, but when he serves well, there’s not much you can do. I just try to stay patient and take care of my own service games.”
As it turns out, Murray could play the second most successful server on the tour, No15 seed John Isner, for a place in the quarter-final. The big American was favoured to beat Teymuraz Gabashvili.
Also in the bottom half of the draw, and a potential semi-final opponent for Murray, No8 seed Milos Raonic confirmed his place in the fourth round with a 7-6(4), 6-2, 6-3 win over Lucky Loser Andrej Martin. He has yet to lose a set but has yet to play another seed, too, and that good fortune continues in the fourth round, as Albert Ramos-Vinolas beat No23 seed Jack Sock after well over four hours and fives sets, 6-7(2), 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.
The remaining seeds in the half—and there is only one other non-seed, Fernando Verdasco, in the third round—would not complete their matches until later.
Another bonus, then, for Murray as he rests up in readiness for the second week at Roland Garros.
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