Andy Murray battles past bold Richard Gasquet to reach first Paris semi-final
Andy Murray beats home favourite Richard Gasquet in three sets to reach the semi-finals of the Paris Masters
Richard Gasquet was proving to be something like a man reborn during 2015. The Frenchman may have been forced to withdraw from three Masters tournaments with injury this year, but here he was with a place at London’s O2 in his sights.
That place may have been as the reserve, but with No8 in the Race, Kei Nishikori, retiring in their third-round match with injury, Gasquet’s could yet find himself among the elite eight.
Hard to believe that, this time last year, he was ranked No27, but had since put together a career-best Grand Slam performance with a semi run at Wimbledon and the quarters of the US Open, plus titles in Montpellier and Estoril. Then ahead of his home Masters in Paris Bercy, he made the semis in both Stockholm and Basel.
His success has been the hard-won reward for a move back to the forward-moving, aggressive tennis that had proved a winner when he burst onto the tennis scene more than a decade ago, and he admitted in Basel that this had been his plan.
“I am trying to increase my aggressive game. It’s been important for my season. Of course the most important thing is to serve better—I am working every day on that part—to be better on the court… I am trying to do that but of course it’s not easy!”
His problem, rather like in Basel—when he faced nemesis Rafael Nadal in the semis—was that Gasquet was now up against the second seed Andy Murray, and the Briton had shown outstanding form to drop just four games against two tough opponents, the fast-rising Borna Coric, who beat him in Dubai this year, and the No16 seed David Goffin.
Murray had also beaten Gasquet in their last three matches, in all three of them coming back from dropping the first set.
Like Gasquet, Murray was playing aggressively, and moving forward with greater frequency with every passing month. And the slow courts in Paris rewarded both his deft touch at the net and his extraordinary defensive skills from the back of the court.
And there was one small piece of history on the line for him, too. He aimed to reach his first semi-final at the BNP Paribas Masters from his sixth quarter-final, and if he did so, he would join Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Nadal as the only players to reach the semis or better at all nine Masters tournaments.
The storming, confident form that carried him to the quarters in well under two hours of tennis was immediately evident, as he capitalised on a couple of hesitant French serves to break.
But Gasquet quickly returned the favour. Six deuces, three break points and almost 12 minutes later, Murray finally held, but it was clear Gasquet intended to use his great angles from the baseline to open up the court and attack.
Murray, now into his rhythm, was soon at 4-1 and pressed on to get a break chance in sixth game, but Gasquet resisted to hold with the first of what would be a string of superb drop-shot winners.
Boosted by the hold, the Frenchman unleashed an attack back, first making a backhand cross-court winner, then something from the Federer text book, a SABR attack to set up another backhand winner: He broke to love.
Both then held strongly all the way to a tie-break. First Murray got the advantage, 3-1, then Gasquet grasped it back, 5-3, but with set point on his racket, the Frenchman made a forehand error, and again at set-point down. Murray had first blood, 7-6(7).
In years past, being ‘so near yet so far’ would have drained the confidence from Gasquet, but the 2015 iteration of the Frenchman has been reminiscent of the bold teenager who stunned Federer in Monte Carlo 10 years ago with his speed, flair and variety.
At the start of the second set, he had one of the fittest and fastest men on the tour running ragged—now with an acute angle, now a bullet down the line, now a drop-shot, now a smash. For Gasquet has not just changed his tactical game but improved his fitness, too. A couple of remarkable return-of-serve winners broke Murray in the sixth game, and another flurry of winners, finished with an ace, held for the set, 6-3.
They had now played for almost two hours and would play almost three-quarters of an hour more. Murray looked as though his back and legs were suffering, Gasquet was drenched and drawn, but both continued to test each other to the limit.
The first four games all brought break points, with Gasquet taking the lead in the third before Murray broke back in the fourth. But eventually, and almost inevitably given that Gasquet was now playing his fourth back-to-back tournament while Murray had rested up after the Shanghai Masters, the Frenchman’s fatigue began to undermine his first serve. He made a couple of rare backhand errors to finally give Murray the break at the fourth time of asking to leave Murray to serve out the match to love, 6-3.
It was probably no surprise to anyone watching that they ended with 103 points each, so close and compelling had been the fight. They even shared the honours on winners, 35-33, but Murray’s net success was perhaps the deciding factor: 20/28 winners to Gasquet’s 18/30.
Murray afterwards conceded that Gasquet went into the third set playing the better tennis: “I got the break back immediately at the beginning of the third set, which was big, because he had the momentum, he was playing the better tennis. His shot-making at times was exceptional. He uses the angles maybe better than anyone else on the tour because of the amount of spin he can generate. He puts you in positions on the court that not many players are able to do. I just managed to fight through in the end.”
Asked about his back, he explained that he had adjusted his serve to compensate: “I was frustrated at the beginning of the second set and how my serve dropped off. I was smart in the end. Instead of going for the big first serves and maybe missing them, I was slowing the serve down, and able to dictate more of the points that way.
“I was moving well right the way through to the end. It was just the serve it was giving me a bit of trouble… Perhaps that’s quite normal after a few weeks’ break… to feel a little bit stiff and sore. This helps me get it out of the system come the World Tour Finals and Davis Cup: It shouldn’t be a problem.”
Music to the ears of his fans around the world, but particularly his home support. For Murray has one of the most taxing ends to a season possible. After playing in his home city of London against the best that tennis has to offer, he must head to the very different clay of Ghent to try and make history in the Davis Cup final.
All that, though, comes after Paris, where he has made his first semi-final. Ahead lies either David Ferrer or John Isner, followed by one of his four big London rivals. Gasquet may have provided just the test he needs for that arduous road.