His runs on the red clay of Monte Carlo and Barcelona were not all he might have hoped for compared with 2011 — quarter-final exits at both — and then he pulled out of the Madrid draw with a back problem.
But his performance in last year’s event — an outstanding three-set battle against Novak Djokovic in the semis that ultimately went the Serb’s way — and his best ever finish at Roland Garros — a semi-final loss to eventual champion, Rafael Nadal — suggested that he had got the hang of a surface where he has yet to reach a final.
His absence from Madrid also gave him a little more time to acclimatise to the Rome conditions: things were promising.
The draw, though, threw up a sequence of men renowned for their flair, touch and unpredictable talent. In his first match, David Nalbandian drew out the very best of Murray for the entire three sets it took to separate these masters of court-craft.
But having downed the Argentine, 7-5 in the third, he faced the often brilliant Richard Gasquet. A junior champion at Roland Garros and the US Open, the Frenchman won his first senior title while still a teenager. And although he had not beaten Murray since 2007 – their three-set tussle was a taste of what was to come – he forced the Scot to fight back from a two-set deficit in their only clay meeting at Roland Garros in 2010.
And if all that was not enough to ring the alarm bells, at this very tournament, in this very round in 2011, Gasquet scored one of the wins of his career to beat Roger Federer from a set and a break down.
Right from the off, it was a tight affair. Gasquet opened serve, went down two break points but held. It took a full 17 minutes to play three games with both men looking for openings to attack and both able, and willing, to deploy drop shots, sliced cross-court backhands and looping forehands from metres behind the baseline.
It was Gasquet, though, who had to resist the stronger, having to produce his best to stay in the contest. In the fifth game, he faced two more break points, and served-and-volleyed his way out of trouble, and in the seventh it was a similar story.
Murray constantly attacked the Gasquet single-handed backhand — an aesthetically lovely action flexible enough to deliver disguised winners in every direction, but vulnerable to the high, wide delivery to the ad court. The Frenchman went 15-40 down and attacked the net to level at deuce.
Four times more, he had to defend his serve but finally Murray’s patience and accuracy were rewarded with a break for a 5-3 lead.
But this would not be such a simple match. Gasquet hit back, pulled off a dramatic smash, Murray double faulted twice and they were back on even terms. By now, both were playing thoroughly compelling tennis with variety, probing exchanges and many forays to the net.
With neither making the decisive break-through, it was entirely appropriate that they head to a tie-break after 80 minutes of play. And suddenly, Murray strung together his penetrating forehand and some big serves to take the set with remarkably calm purpose for the loss of just one point.
A betting man would have put a significant wager on the confident Murray storming through the second set, but the Frenchman must have looked back through his mental archives and remembered the position he was in this time last year.
He did not wait for Murray to break in the second set as he had against Federer but went on the offensive straight away and broke in the first game. He pressured Murray in the third game, too, but the Scot held, only to face two more break points in the fifth. Gasquet was, quite simply, enjoying a purple patch: serving at 80 percent and making drop-shot-lob combos at will.
And rather than Gasquet succumbing to distractions, as he has done in the past, it was Murray who found the fluctuating shadows across the court difficult to handle.
The ball flew in and out of sunshine for more than hour, making it tricky even for the spectator to follow, and although Murray broke Gasquet back in the eighth game, his retaliation was short-lived. The Frenchman finished off the set by breaking Murray with a glorious backhand cross-court winner, 6-3.
Now there were signs, though, that it may be more than just the court conditions disturbing Murray. He barely sat down between the sets, appeared to be holding his back, and his tennis began to look flat.
Much of that was down to Gasquet’s tennis continuing to delight with its touch and variety but much was also down to a growing number of errors from Murray. He faced a break point on his first service game but held. Then, in a mirroring of the previous two sets, the third game turned into a marathon as Murray went for broke.
He earned no fewer than three break points via seven deuces, but Gasquet outsmarted and out-volleyed on the key points in what proved to be a decisive hold.
Murray’s head dropped, Gasquet’s backhand flourished and the Frenchman broke in the sixth and then again in the last game when Murray netted a tired forehand. The match was Gasquet’s, 6-2.
Naturally, the first question that Murray faced afterwards related to that suspect back: “Similar to the other night [against Nalbandian]. Long match and sore back towards the end, but I was expecting that coming to the tournament. I didn’t take a break from training and playing a lot, but the muscles are more tired and fatigued.”
His schedule, though, will not be affected: “I was planning on going to Paris straight away – to make sure I got practising, got to the gym, just getting into shape and understanding the conditions.”
So Murray was the first of the top four men to fall. Nadal sailed past fellow Spaniard, Marcel Granollers, 6-1, 6-1, while both Djokovic and Federer had three-set tussles against, respectively, Juan Monaco and Juan Carlos Ferrero.
They, along with David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga — a straight sets winner over Juan Martin del Potro — plus Tomas Berdych and the surprise of the pack, home hero Andreas Seppi, complete the quarterfinal line-up.
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