Not enough that he had been drawn in the same quarter as Rafael Nadal, nor the same half as Roger Federer. He was also drawn against the huge and in-form Croat Ivo Karlovic, all 6ft 11 in of him, in the fourth round.
And if proof were needed for the reason behind the No23 seed’s rise in the rankings, his results said it all: Alexandr Dolgopolov fell 13-11 in the fifth set of Round 2, and No13 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in four sets in Round 3.
And if more proof was needed of the problem Karlovic posed, it was the nature of his wins. He had notched up six tie-breaks thus far and hit 136 aces in his first three matches. In the second alone, he served 53 of them, the most he has ever hit in a match at Wimbledon.
Only a fortnight ago, on the grass of Halle, Karlovic also broke the record for most aces served in a 3-set tour-level match—45 of them to beat Tomas Berdych and reach the semis.
He claimed another high-profile win in 2015, too. He was the first man, and still one of only three this year, to win a match against the super Serb, world No1 Novak Djokovic, reaching the semis in Doha, and went on to win his first title in two years at Delray Beach.
So there was no doubting the 36-year-old Karlovic’s form, up from outside the top 100 after injury problems two years ago. Now he was aiming to reach the quarters here for only the second time in his career—but if he posed a towering problem for Murray, the Briton posed a huge problem for the Croat, too.
For Murray has this season played arguably his most confident tennis since he won his first Wimbledon title in 2013. And while he plays as No3 seed, he is No2 in the race after his best ever clay season—not to mention the Queen’s title, part of an 8-match winning streak.
What many of the home crowd may not have appreciated, yet at least, was that Murray is already the leading British man in terms of Grand Slam match-wins, with a 148-35 win-loss record.
The British star had beaten Karlovic in all five of their previous meetings, so he clearly had some clue to how to contain the big-serving Croat’s game. First and foremost, he had to look after his own serve—as Roger Federer had explained in talking of his success against big servers after beating Sam Groth last week.
Then it is time to break up the rhythm of his opponent. Easier said than done, but with super-fast reactions, one of the best return games in the business and the variety to throw in sliced returns, touch drop shots and inch-perfect lobs, the tools were in place for a tactically astute dismantling of Karlovic.
It was not, of course, quite as easy as that. The first set took almost an hour, and although Murray three times had chances to break Karlovic—notably at 0-40 and 5-6 up—the Croat came up with huge serving each time. It would inevitably go to a tie-break. Karlovic took the first mini-break with a cracking forehand winner but Murray drew level at 4-4 and finally got the point against serve he needed at 7-7 and served out the set, 7-6(7).
Murray continued to break up the serve-and-volley attempts of Karlovic, dropping returns at the big man’s feet, or curving a forehand top-spin pass cross-court—and if the rally extended beyond a few shots, he was able to dominate with speed, with depth of shot and to counter with lobs—no mean achievement over a player of Karlovic’s stature and volleying expertise.
Murray broke in the first game of the second set, then dropped only two points on his first serve and two on his second to hold through to its 6-4 conclusion.
The third set was nip and tuck again, with Karlovic clutch on serve. Each defended a break point but by 5-5 they had made just four errors between them for 31 winners.
And then it all changed in the blink of an eye. Another hold for Karlovic and suddenly Murray was facing another break point, but this time set-point, and he hit a forehand long: 5-7.
The Centre Court went into uproar, few believing this would go to a fourth set. And again there was no breakthrough for six games, but Murray got just a touch lucky, making a late challenge on a Karlovic forehand having made a return, and the ball was shown out. It brought the break, and he survived two-break back points in the next to lead 5-3. It had felt like a game-changer, and when Murray made two winning lobs and return-of-serve winner for match point, it looked done and dusted. But a remarkably agile Karlovic leapt for winning volley and held.
Murray would have to serve it out, but he did in confident style, 6-4, but it had taken him over three hours.
He afterwards explained the key to his win: “I came up with some good lobs and passing shots, managed to keep him low. That was important, but an incredibly difficult match, mentally tiring, because you need to be focused on every single point and take your chances when they come.”
Murray goes on to play the big and talented Vasek Pospisil, who has become the second Canadian in successive years to reach the quarter-finals at here. Milos Raonic went on to reach the semis last year, but Pospisil has not reached this deep into a Major before.
The 25-year-old fought back from a 0-2 deficit to beat No22 seed Viktor Troicki 4-6, 6-7(4), 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in two hours and 39 minutes.
Pospisil and Murray have met three times before, all in the last year and all wins to Murray, but Pospisil went as high as No25 at the start of 2014, before neck and back problems affected his results, and has all court skill and power cultivated by strong doubles credentials—defending Wimbledon champion with Jack Sock, no less.
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BIOGRAPHY: Cesc Fabregas