French Open 2016: Andy Murray survives two-day test to join Bedene and Edmund in Round 2

Andy Murray battles hard to beat Radek Stepanek 3-6 3-6 6-0 6-2 7-5 and reach the second round of the French Open

Perhaps for the first time in his impressive career, Andy Murray arrived at Roland Garros as one of the chief contenders for the title.

Fresh from winning his first Rome Masters title last week and making the Madrid finals the week before, he was seeded No2 here for the first time, and arrived with at least as good a run through the three clay Masters as Madrid champion Novak Djokovic and Monte-Carlo champion Rafael Nadal.

For a man who, until last year, had never even reached a clay tournament final before, let alone won one, this has proved to be something of a transformation. Last summer, two years after persistent back problems forced him to miss Roland Garros and 18 months after undergoing back surgery, he won in Munich and the Madrid Masters, and went from strength to strength.

Now comfortable with the sliding, twisting movement demanded by clay, he had even beaten both Nadal and Djokovic on the red stuff along the way. Yes, he was certainly in the conversation when it came title prospects, especially when the draw put Nadal into the Djokovic half.

But when the qualifier thrown into Murray’s path in the first round proved to be Radek Stepanek, there was every chance the Briton’s progress would not be plain sailing.

The oldest man in the draw, Stepanek took the Briton to three sets a matter of weeks ago on Madrid’s clay—and beat him at Queen’s in their previous match in 2014. And with three qualifying matches under his belt already, he opened much the faster and more aggressively when they took to court at gone 6pm on a rain-delayed Monday.

The Czech broke in the third game, held for 3-1, and for good measure broke again for the set, 6-3 after just 41 minutes.

Murray seemed set to steady the ship with an immediate break in the second set, but Stepanek continued to mix it up beautifully with his aggressive blend of all-court, doubles-honed tennis, and two netted shots from Murray, first a drop then a forehand, gave the Czech the opening to break in the eighth game. With 1hr 25mins on the clock, Stepanek held serve for 6-3 and a two-set lead.

Murray raced through the third set in 15 minutes, 6-0, as Stepanek visibly tired, and the Czech appealed and failed to get the match stopped for bad light. He would, though, disappear for a comfort break, change his shirt and racket and receive a time-violation warning. However, after Murray took a 4-2 lead in the fourth, time was called for bad light.

When they returned at around 1pm, it was bitterly cold, and Murray’s game had cooled again, but he fought off two break points for 5-2 and served out solidly, 6-3: This would go to a deciding fifth.

But Stepanek was not going to give this up without a fight: He fended off three deuces and a break point with a crafty drop-shot winner in the opening game, came back from 0-30 down in the third with four winning points, survived an even longer game in fifth, and another game of multiple deuces in the seventh.

Meanwhile, Murray held with relative ease, 4-4, but Stepanek’s fighting spirit and attacking tactics—drop-shots, lobs, volley passing shots and more—stirred up the crowd: they loved what they saw, and the Czech produced more as he held to love with an ace.

Now Murray served to stay in the set, faced 30-30 and then deuce: It was edgy stuff but Murray came off the better in longer rallies and aced to hold. He quickly took advantage of a couple of wayward errors from Stepanek in the next, notably a double fault to bring up two break points, and this time served for the set.

Even so, Murray found himself battling, double faulted on match-point, before Stepanek made a rare volley error on the second match-point. After 3hrs 41mins of fascinating tennis, the win was Murray’s 7-5.

For all the edginess, and not a little gamesmanship and irritation between the two combatants during the match, they embraced warmly at the net, and Murray was generous in his praise of the veteran:

“It is unbelievable what he is doing. He had a bad injury last year [to his lower back] yet at 37 he is still coming out and fighting like that. I don’t expect to be doing that myself at that age. I’m just glad I managed to get through.”

He added: “He has always been extremely difficult to play. He hardly missed any volleys—until the one on match point and even that nearly got over. He hit a lot of drop shots, hit the ball very flat and made it very hard for me to dictate and get any rhythm.

“It was obviously an extremely difficult match, very tricky, challenging. Today was pretty stressful. It’s never easy playing a match over two days, especially when it ended up kind of being just a one-set shootout in the end. So it was very tough.”

It is the ninth time that Murray has won from two sets down, and the third time he has done it at Roland Garros. He will face French wildcard Mathias Bourgue, ranked 164.

Murray, though, it not the lone British man in the second round. For the first time since 1975, there are three of them. After Kyle Edmund, ranked 82, impressed against Nikoloz Basilashvili in four sets last night, Aljaz Bedene, ranked 66, beat Austrian qualifier Gerald Melzer, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, to reach the second round in Paris for the first time.

Bedene admitted: “It wasn’t easy to get back, especially after losing the first set… But I mean, I was practising well, so that helped quite a lot. I have been working on few things with Leon [Smith, Davis Cup captain]. He helped me. After losing the first set and then winning three straight sets, just feels great. I know I played my game and I was fully focused. Just all the nonsense left behind, so it was good.”

Bedene will play either 31st seed Federico Delbonis or Pablo Carreno Busta in the second round.

Elsewhere in the draw, No7 seed and former Roland Garros semi-finalist Tomas Berdych, who is lined up to meet Djokovic in the quarters, beat Vasek Pospisil, 6-3, 6-2, 6-1. In the same quarter, in a contest between two #NextGen stars, Borna Coric beat Taylor Fritz, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3. Coric next meets No20 seed Bernard Tomic.

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