Thursday had been full of promise, but carried with it a mood of gloom almost from sunrise. Clouds gathered, thunder rumbled and the rains disrupted both matches and players’ fortunes.
The first casualty, in the midst of the some of the best tennis of the week, was Julien Benneteau. He was nip and tuck with Andy Murray when he tripped and fell in a near-identical replay of Juan Monaco’s accident in the same corner of Court Central. A fractured elbow will almost certainly keep the Frenchman out of the French Open.
Then came a sombre Novak Djokovic in a subdued match with Alexandr Dolgopolov. Just hours before, the Serb heard of the death of his grandfather, and a match expected to deliver fireworks instead was as grey as the storm-clouds over the bay. It was, though, an emotional Djokovic who advanced and a downcast Dolgopolov who headed to the exit.
As Rafael Nadal took to court in the early evening, mottled skies cracked with lightening. Rarely has the Spaniard played a faster match—a scant hour—to seal his own quarter-final place.
So it was with some relief that Friday’s stage dawned in bright orange bordered by the deep rust shadows that only Mediterranean sunshine can create.
And the first to step into the warm spotlight were two men who promised the tightest and toughest of the quarter-finals.
Andy Murray’s draw looked the trickiest of the top three seeds from the start and, with Djokovic and Nadal seeing their highest ranked opponents already out of contention, it was only Murray who faced a daunting last-eight, top-10 player.
Tomas Berdych, ranked No7 in the world, is a formidable man, big in stature, power and game. Not only had the Czech beaten the Scot three times in their five meetings but had done so in their only clay match, the French Open of 2010.
Berdych immediately took up the role in which he is most happy, on the baseline and ready to attack the net at the every opportunity. It took Murray a few games to respond to the Czech’s aggressive stance but, serving in the fourth, he too ventured to the net and then threw in a first drop-shot.
There were, though, already danger signs from Berdych. Several times he unleashed his huge, flat forehand—hit with a clean, crisp action—down the line. It was just such a shot that earned the Czech two break points in the eighth game.
In drop shots, though, Murray was the master and he found an outright drop winner to save the first while an error from Berdych levelled the score. Murray finally saved a third break point with a big serve to take the eight-minute game: 4-4.
If Berdych rued those lost chances, he would rue even more the opportunities he had on Murray’s serve in the 12th game.
The Czech went 40-15 up and faced a second serve from Murray, but played a poor volley return. Gifted a third and a fourth break point, Berdych repeated the pattern, facing second serves but making errors at the net.
Having stared down four set points in a game of almost 11 minutes, Murray took both confidence and momentum into the tie-break. He took control from the first point and won the set, 7-4, to lead for the first time.
Berdych had lost only three points from 23 on his first serve, had made 20 winners to Murray’s 12, and held the overwhelming advantage at the net, winning 13 points there compared with three from Murray. And yet it was the Czech who trailed due to the last stat on the list: seven break points, none won.
Earlier in his career, such a scenario may have distracted Berdych. On this occasion, though, he remained remarkably calm and focused while Murray took on the distracted role. The Scot muttered to himself, unhappy with the odd poor bounce and his own errors.
Sure enough, in the third game it was the focused Berdych who earned two break points and finally, at his ninth attempt, converted one.
He remained the aggressor throughout the set and, by 4-2, had notched up 28 winners to Murray’s 15. Come the seventh game, and Berdych brought up break points No10 and 11 and converted the second to lead 5-2. He calmly served out a set in which he had dropped just one point on his first serve. Murray still had not earned a single break chance.
The start of the deciding set reinforced Berdych’s dominance. He fired an outright winner off a return of serve, then two winning volleys to gain another break point. He then made a forehand winner for a second chance and this time converted it with yet another big forehand.
His advantage was short lived: the Berdych ground strokes unravelled in a sequence of errors to give Murray his first—and what would be his only—break point of the match. Murray took it with alacrity but still Berdych was not fazed. His forehand back in order, he hit a pair of big winners to break back, 2-1.
The Czech, this time, affirmed his break with some impressive clean strikes to keep up the pressure on an increasingly thwarted Murray. At 5-3, Berdych made his final assault, attacking the net for almost a 50th time and taking game, set and match, 6-3, with, appropriately, his 26th forehand winner.
Murray, increasingly berating himself as the final set unfolded, muttered to himself of basic mistakes and bad decisions. The truth was rather different. Berdych played both to a high standard and with a consistently aggressive game plan. Most striking of all, he was the one who stayed the more focused when faced with poor bounces and missed opportunities—such as the 11 break point chances that went begging.
It was a reminder that, if Berdych can combine this kind of focus and confidence with his powerful, attacking all-round game, he is a player who could yet challenge for a top-five ranking. Already, he is destined to return to his highest ever position of No6 next week.
His semi-final match, against Djokovic, will be the next significant test in realising that ambition.
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