Six of them had stayed true to their designated paths. Five, indeed, were, seeded in the top eight: No1 Novak Djokovic would take on No6 David Ferrer, while No4 Kei Nishikori would take on the lowest ranked seed to make it through, No22 John Isner. But they would not compete at Crandon Park until Thursday.
The other two top seeds to make the quarters were No3 Andy Murray and No8 Tomas Berdych—but they would take on a pair of outcomers, two unseeded players with very different histories.
Berdych’s opponent would be the No46-ranked Juan Monaco, a former world No10, who had working his way back from injury and from outside the top 100 last September. He reached his 20th career final in Buenos Aires last month and, playing his 12th Miami at 31 years old, he could reasonably call himself a veteran. But Monaco had already beaten three seeds in four matches without dropping a set and was playing aggressive, impressive, fast-moving tennis.
Murray’s opponent was 10 years Monaco’s junior, the No52 Dominic Thiem.
Like Monaco, the Austrian had played four matches to take out two seeds plus the in-form Jack Sock, and now played in his first Masters quarter-final.
Yet for all his youth and inexperience, Thiem has long promised great things, and in his break-out season last year, reached the second round via qualifying on his debut in Miami—having reached the third round in Indian Wells and then beaten Stan Wawrinka to do the same at the Madrid Masters. A final run in Kitzbuhel and the fourth round at the US Open made him the youngest player to finish 2014 in the Top 50, but it was his first big run, in the Rotterdam 500, that was the most significant on this quarter-final day in Miami.
That chilly indoor event was the scene of the only previous encounter between Murray and Thiem, and it showcased the young Austrian’s fast, strong, and multi-faceted skills. Thiem could hit serves at 215kph and conjure drops shots with enough disguise to fool even Murray. His forehand was flat and powerful and his backhand—that rare and beautiful thing among young players, a one-hander— was a powerhouse not entirely dissimilar from that of Wawrinka.
Murray finally won that contest, but it took him three sets and well over two hours—and also launched Thiem onto the big stage. As Murray said with a wry grin: “An exciting game to watch but not much fun to play: I’m sure we’re going to see a lot more of him… unbelievable shots, huge winners that appear—as the opponent—high risk shots, surprising, huge, hard shots!”
Since then, the two men have got to know one another well, as Murray explained ahead of this quarter-final: “I practise with him quite a lot. He’s a very nice guy, he works very hard, very respectful, great attitude: He’s got a great future ahead.”
Thiem certainly brought every ounce of energy and talent into play right from the off, laying out his tactics for all, but especially Murray, to see. The first point was forward to the net for a volley winner and he held with an ace.
But Murray countered with a love hold and showed that he, too, intended to be just as aggressive as in his previous matches. He stepped inside the baseline to pounce on the Thiem serve, then came to the net to make it 0-30, but the Austrian hustled, Murray dived, but missed the pass.
Two double faults in his next service game suggested that Murray may have a shoulder problem, especially after a quick break and a love hold by the Austrian for a 4-1 lead. However, soon Murray was moving perfectly again, and the quality of the tennis edged ever upwards to produce some magnificent rallies.
Murray got the better of a 33-stroke opening point as Thiem served for the first set, then brought up break point, but bold attacking play from the Austrian, a volley winner, then a one-two punch saved the day, and Thiem took the set, to gasps of admiration from the crowd, 6-3.
Murray took a quick lead in the second set with some outstanding serving, 3-0, and held to 15 with an ace for 4-1. But a wayward game in the seventh—twice a forehand error, then a backhand wide—and Thiem made the break back with a text-book backhand volley. A love hold and it was 4-4, and still Thiem kept up the hyper-aggressive play.
But by now, Murray’s remarkable defence-turned-attack was paying off. He pressured again, Thiem double faulted, and the Briton broke to take the set, 6-4.
The signs suggested Thiem was tiring: He had, after all, played more matches than Murray, the last one an energy-sapping three-setter against Adrian Mannarino—and he had stopped off in Texas on his way to Miami to play two three-setters in a Challenger tournament, too.
Now applying the pressure on every point, Murray soon made the breakthrough in the third game, and from then on could do no wrong, broke again, and served it out, 6-1, to reach his fifth Miami semi-final. He had made just 18 unforced errors in the 147 points played.
Murray explained the difficulty of playing such an aggressive man, but also his own tactics in the face of a talented but less experienced challenger.
“He’s such a powerful guy that when he’s dictating points, you end up doing a lot of running. And it’s tough. I was actually hitting the ball quite well, but not returning well enough when I needed to. I managed to get a few more returns at the end of the second set, and in the third I was a lot more confident on my return, and that made a huge difference.
“It’s a fine line between going for winners and making your opponent play. He’s obviously fairly young and in that situation, it’s sometimes better to back off and let him play the ball. That’s what being a good match-player is, understanding when to go for your shots when to back off a bit and make your opponent play.”
Suffice to say, Murray’s game—and, it seems, his confidence—is in a good place. There is still a mountain to climb—either Berdych or Monaco in the semis before his third shot Djokovic this year. It would be some wedding present if he was to claim that scalp with his third title come Sunday.
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