Monte Carlo Masters: Andy Murray survives severe Herbert test to reach Round 3

Andy Murray beats Pierre-Hugues Herbert in three sets to reach the third round of the Monte Carlo Masters

andy murray
Andy Murray in action in Monte Carlo Photo: Marianne Bevis

For a man who has won two titles from five finals in the opening two Masters tournaments of the season, Indian Wells and Miami, this year has thus far brought relatively thin pickings for the world No2 Andy Murray: two wins, two losses.

But in the overall scheme of things, it has not been a bad season for the Briton. First a final run at the Australian Open, then the arrival of his first child, and after a month’s paternity leave, three back-to-back wins in Davis Cup as GB opened the defence of the title won in no small part by Murray at the end of 2015.

He was, then, understandably pragmatic about those March results ahead of his first step into the clay season at one of the most glamorous spots on the tour, Monte-Carlo.

“I think the last few weeks have been tough for me… The loss in Indian Wells was disappointing… I wasn’t particularly happy with the way I played in Miami, I could have done better there for sure, but the beginning of the year was good, the Australian Open was very good, and in Davis Cup I played and won an important match [a five-set thriller against world No6 Kei Nishikori]…

“At least I’m fresh… But you need to win matches, too, and hopefully I can do that during the clay season.”

He had good reason to be optimistic about his prospects on his return to Monte-Carlo for the first time since 2013. Twice before he had reached the semis, in 2009 and 2011, and though he had often struggled with movement on the clay, his semi finishes in both Rome and Roland Garros attested to his ability on the sliding surface.

Eventually, after a particularly painful clay season in 2013, he opted for back surgery, and subsequently made two semi runs at the French Open. Then last year he won his first two titles on the red stuff—in Munich and then at the Madrid Masters. Along the way he beat Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer, and took Novak Djokovic to five sets in the French Open semis, ending 2015 with the best clay win-loss stats on the tour, 17-1.

As he put it this week: “It’s the first time I’d had good wins on clay against the best players, and that helps with the belief.”

This, though, was his first appearance at Monte-Carlo since that surgery, and he brought his new-found clay confidence to the table: “Last year was definitely my best year on the clay… So this year there’s no reason why I can’t have a good clay season. I like the surface now. I’m not coming into it with any fears or worries that I’m going to play badly or not be able to move properly. I think I can play well on the clay.”

It turned out to be a decent draw for the Briton, too: After a first-round bye, he faced qualifier Pierre-Hugues Herbert.

The 25-year-old Frenchman, ranked 95, won his first ever main-draw match here against Guido Pella to earn a tilt at Murray. Herbert had played a lot of tennis this year, and with increasing success: Round 3 via qualifying in Australia, Round 2 via qualifying in Miami—and the same here—with a Challenger title in between, too. That was not all: He arrived with back-to-back doubles titles in Indian Wells and Miami alongside Nicolas Mahut, and was seeded No3 in that draw here, too.

So the Frenchman had plenty of variety in his tennis, and increasing quantities of confidence and experience. What’s more, he clearly liked clay: “I believe it’s a lovely surface. It’s alive. You have to slide on it, you can do beautiful drop-shots, you can play topspin. It’s much more spectacular than a game on hard courts… I was brought up on this surface, and I love it.”

Murray looked as though he had the measure of Herbert’s crafty game in the early stages, picking up the many drop shots and countering his backhand. The Frenchman pulled back the initial 2-0 lead to 2-2, but Murray broke again, and a third time for 6-2 in just 37 minutes.

Herbert looked tired, and the errors flowed—17 in that opener—and Murray just needed to keep his game clean to stay in control. But in the second set, things were far from clean, as Herbert seemed to revive. He pulled Murray around the full width and depth of the court, and soon had the local crowd behind him.

Murray saved three break points in the first game, and tried to counter Herbert’s advance by coming to the net himself, but he was broken in the third game and had to fight off another break point in the fourth.

The all-court cat-and-mouse continued, but Murray’s error tally grew to 14 while Herbert’s winners matched it, and the Frenchman served it out, 6-4, with a fine forehand volley.

Herbert again looked weary as the match moved towards the two-hour mark. Three straight errors in the fourth game contributed to a decisive break to love in the fourth. Murray had to dig deep to hold off more challenges—four deuces and a break point in the fifth game, two deuces and another break point in the seventh—but he closed it out in 2hrs 6mins, 6-3.

He will now play either another Frenchman with bags of style, the No16 seed Benoit Paire, or the No34 ranked Joao Sousa, who put out Ivo Karlovic—and took Murray to four sets in their last two meetings, at Roland Garros and the Australian Open.

Thereafter, the challenges grow still bigger. In the quarters, he could face either last year’s losing finalist Tomas Berdych, who has won all three of their previous clay encounters, or the big-serving Milos Raonic, twice a quarter-finalist here—and once in Roland Garros—and a semi-finalist in Rome. The Canadian will take on the winner of a gruelling three-tie-break affairs won in 3hrs 20mins by Pablo Cuevas.

Murray was preceded on Court Rainier by No15 seed Gilles Simon taking on Grigor Dimitrov, and the durable 31-year-old Frenchman was too precise and nimble for the Bulgarian star. Simon converted his first break point of the first set after 44 minutes, 6-4, and overturned an early break by Dimitrov in the second set to break back twice for the win, 6-3.

Simon is one of a packed quarter of the draw that could bring him French Open champion Stan Wawrinka in the next round and eight-time Monte-Carlo champion Rafael Nadal in the quarters.

In the top quarter of the draw, No7 seed David Ferrer withdrew injured, to be replaced by Lucky Loser Marcel Granollers. The 22-year-old Czech Jiri Vesely came through another three-setter against Teymuraz Gabashvili, becoming the first man to face defending champion Djokovic tomorrow.

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