Queen’s 2016: Andy Murray ends Nicolas Mahut run in British-French quarter
Andy Murray seals a straight-sets win over Nicolas Mahut at Queen's in his first match since Ivan Lendl's return as his coach
The home nation at this year’s Aegon Championships may count itself blessed to have no fewer than five men in the main draw at Queen’s, and not one of them dependent on qualifying rounds.
Top of the pile, of course, was the defending champion Andy Murray, fresh from his first French Open final and reunited with former coach and former world No1, Ivan Lendl.
Next up was Aljaz Bedene, ranked 58 after his first ever third-round run at a Grand Slam in Paris.
Then came three wild cards. The first and youngest, age 21, was Kyle Edmund, close to a career high 85 after winning two Challengers from three finals this year. He was here for just the second time having lost his only other match at Queen’s in 2013.
Next in line was Dan Evans, newly into the top 100 after a storming season on the Challenger circuit: two titles from four finals. Bringing up the rear was James Ward, currently down at 178 but a semi-finalist here in the days of the 64-man draw, in 2011.
And all that before taking into account the doubles world No1, Jamie Murray—playing with his Australian Open championship partner Bruno Soares—plus Dominic Inglot and Colin Fleming, and the wild-card pairing of Bedene and Edmund.
But one nation always seems to top the table when it comes down to sheer numbers and not a little quality.
France has a conveyer belt of players with flair and talent, such that there are six men in the top 30, 12 in the top 100. And the draw here contained no fewer than were seven of them, with two seeds.
As it turned out, No4 seed Richard Gasquet was the victim of weather and Steve Johnson on a near wash-out Monday: After hours of rain delays and three attempts at match-play, he went out, 7-6, 6-2.
Remarkably, four of the remaining six were drawn against Britons in the opening round, and all four face-offs were in the same quarter.
First up was Murray, who not only excelled on clay this season but one of the most accomplished grass-court players on the tour: A Wimbledon champion, gold medallist on London 2012’s grass, and a four-time winner at Queen’s.
But he knew he had his hands full against his opening opponent, the 51-ranked 34-year-old Nicolas Mahut. All the Frenchman’s titles had come on grass, including yesterday in ‘s Hertogenbosch, his third there. His purpose-built serve-and-volley tennis has always come alive on the turf, and he was even a finalist at Queen’s in 2007. What’s more, Mahut beat Murray here in 2012, winning a final-set tie-break.
In Murray’s favour this time was surely a touch of exhaustion in the Mahut legs: The Frenchman had time for only a half-hour practice after his late arrival from the Netherlands, though it certainly did not show when the players finally made it to court on a chilly early evening.
Indeed it was Mahut who got the first break in the fifth game of the first set, but in a long sixth game, Murray worked three break back points and levelled things, 3-3. Each continued to serve well, gave little away, and they headed to a tie-break.
Again Mahut seemed to have the edge, slicing and dicing, and racing to the net for put-aways. He took a 2-0 lead, but Murray was finding his range and he slotted away some passing shots to draw level and then take a 4-2 lead. Mahut pulled it back to 4-4, and they edged through a nail-biter, now one with a set point, now the other, but it was Murray who drew the final error to clinch the set, 7-6(8).
That set had taken a little under an hour: The second one would take exactly an hour, as it unfolded in a near-identical pattern. Mahut smashed a high volley winner in the fourth game to break, and held for 4-1. But come the moment to serve out the set, 5-3, he began to miss his first serve, and Murray slotted a backhand pass to break, then held to love.
Mahut was still not done, and Murray escaped some fine touch from the Frenchman and three break points with some outstanding clutch serves: The Briton would end the match with 15 aces. It would, then, be another tie-break.
This time, Murray took a quick grip, helped by a heavy fall from Mahut, and sealed the match, 7-6(1), in a few minutes under two hours.
Murray afterwards paid tribute to Mahut to BBC Sport: “It was tough. Nico’s a very accomplished grass-court player and because of the weather the last few days, we haven’t been able to get on the grass too much to hit. It was a tricky first round and I’m glad I managed to get through.”
His next opponent is a first-time contest against fellow Brit Bedene, who beat Benoit Paire 7-6 (8-6) 6-7 (7-9) 6-4.
Beyond that in the quarters, and Murray could meet Evans, who would take on Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu, ranked 61, the next day after the Tuesday schedule was trimmed. Alternatively, Murray could face Edmund, but the youngster had the unenviable task of playing the other seeded Frenchman in the draw, Gilles Simon. Not that he was without form against Simon: He lost their only other encounter in two tie-breaks, also on grass in Eastbourne, as a teenager in 2013. But that match too would have to wait Wednesday.
The one Briton not playing a Frenchman was Ward, but he lost out to the big-serving man from Luxembourg, Gilles Muller, 6-4. 6-4, in just over an hour.
The British-French contests, however, do not end with the singles draw. The top pairing of Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert are drawn to face Inglot and partner Daniel Nestor at the top of the draw while Jamie Murray and Soares face Paire and Stan Wawrinka at the other end.
They, too, would have to wait another—and with luck—dry day.