French Open 2012: Andy Murray survives the dragon’s fire in Paris
British No1 Andy Murray beats Tatsuma Ito of Japan 6-1 7-5 6-0 to reach the second round of the French Open in Paris
The draw that the French Open handed Andy Murray was hardly conducive to a good night’s sleep.
He found himself in the same half as Rafael Nadal — for the seventh time in the last eight Grand Slams — and saw along his route the man who beat him early in Rome, Richard Gasquet and a possible quarter-final against one of the most dangerous clay court players outside the top four, David Ferrer — unless John Isner upsets the top quarter apple cart.
What Murray and few of his supporters would have had nightmares over was his opening match against the Japanese Tatsuma Ito, and the reason was immediately apparent.
Ito may be ranked in the 70s but a quick look at his profile showed that, apart from that very fact — and that he turned 24 the same week as Murray turned 25 — there was precious little to know about this man.
Ahead of Paris, he had just nine 2012 games to name — five of them losses — and only 27 career matches on the ATP tour. The reason, quite simply, was that Ito had played almost exclusively in Challengers, so his list of titles and finals, singles or doubles, was a row of zeros.
Meanwhile Murray, though not enjoying the ideal clay season — he had not got beyond the quarters in any of his three clay tournaments — nevertheless showed a mastery of the surface last year with semi-final finishes in Monte Carlo, Rome and Roland Garros.
So when the Japanese man arrived on Suzanne Lenglen with the No4 seed, it would be fair to say that many expected an exhibition. And to some degree, that is just what they got, but of the most fascinating, see-sawing kind.
The first set was over very quickly as Murray quickly asserted his superiority. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Japanese man seemed to struggle with the enormity of the setting and the difficulty of handling the variety that Murray can so effortlessly generate.
A couple of breaks, a couple of holds and Murray was at 5-0 before Ito got a game on the board. The Japanese man pushed Murray to deuce as the Scot served for the set, but that was as close as he came to preventing its 6-1 conclusion.
Murray opened the second set strongly, too, to break straight away. But a double fault brought up 0-40 and three break back points, and Ito converted to level again at 2-2.
Thus the see-saw tipped in the Japanese man’s favour. Clearly drawing confidence from his break against Murray, Ito accelerated through a purple patch where he could do nothing but hit winners.
His team boasted ahead of the tournament of their man’s ‘dragon’ shot, a lightning fast forehand unleashed in elegant and economic style to either side of the opposing court.
Serving in the fifth game, it was just this forehand that he unleashed. Four strikes later and he had held serve to love, leaving Murray almost rooted to the spot as the ball whistled past him.
Murray’s serve dropped in both pace and reliability—to just 50 percent for the set—while Ito went on to conclude another love service game with a blur of a forehand and then applied his weapon to the Murray serve.
With his back against the wall, 0-40 down, Murray managed to summon up is best serving of the match—hitting over 130mph for the first time—to save all three break points and then a fourth.
Still Ito stayed on the offensive and his no-holds-barred attacking tennis came close to earning its reward as he took a 5-4 lead. But Murray has not been a Grand Slam finalist for nothing. He began to anticipate the Ito shots and strategies, countered them with angles and depth and, to break the rhythm, took to the net for a few quick finishes.
Backed up by some of the best counterpunching tennis on the tour, he began to draw errors from Ito as the Japanese man went for just a bit more on his shots.
Ito went 0-40 down on serve, courtesy of a shocking drop shot and then a double fault, clawed back to deuce, but then fluffed an easy volley for a fourth break point, and this time he could not contain his backhand. Murray had the break-through at the key moment and, now with much more bounce in his step and angle in his forehand, he took the set 7-5.
The third set brought the see-saw back down on Murray’s side. Having survived the storm, he relaxed into his game to make just three more unforced errors in the match, compared with the 14 he had stacked up in the second. Time, then, to throw in a few drop shots and some touch half volleys too—all useful practice for further down the Roland Garros Road.
Meanwhile Ito, his ammunition now misfiring under the easy pressure of Murray, cranked up 13 errors—in just the six games it took Murray to finish the match.
The very last game brought a final flourish from both men, an exchange of touches at the net won by Ito. It drew a huge smile from the Japanese and drew appreciative cheers from the crowd, too. And when it was finally over, he enjoyed an enthusiastic ovation from the packed stands. He had lost but, for a while, he had entertained with the best of them, and in Paris they like nothing more.
Murray quelled concerns that his difficulties in the second set may be down to the ongoing back problem he has carried most of the season:
“The back is fine and hopefully it will keep getting better each day. I’ll make sure I do all the right things so that it feels as good as possible through the tournament.”
He next plays Jarkko Nieminen, who he has beaten in all three previous meetings, though they have not played since 2010 and have never played on clay.
One man Murray knows he will not now face—the only men’s seed to fall on the final day of first-round play—is Alexandr Dolgopolov. Yet still Murray’s eighth is filled with challenges: No25 seed Bernard Tomic looms in Round 3, and then either Gasquet or veteran Tommy Haas or young gun, Grigor Dimitrov.
But the road is long, and Murray will draw strength and confidence from the brief but intense challenge of Ito—a name that will surely gather its full quota of facts and figures before too long.