Dubai 2017: Andy Murray saves seven match points to win thriller against Kohlschreiber
Andy Murray saves seven match points against Philipp Kohlschreiber on his way to reaching the Dubai Duty Free semi-finals
There was no doubting that world No1 Andy Murray had become the hot favourite to add his name to a Dubai honours roll dominated by two of the best players of the modern era, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. After all, the two former champions in the draw, Federer and the defending champion Stan Wawrinka, had already gone.
Last season, the Briton won more matches, 78, and more titles from more finals, nine from 13, than anyone else, and was unbeaten through the World Tour Finals to claim the No1 ranking.
At the start of this year, he came off second best to Djokovic in the Doha final, and ran out of steam, it seemed, with a fourth-round exit at the Australian Open. He revealed this week that he had contracted the debilitating virus shingles after Melbourne and Dubai was his first return to competition, but the enforced rest had, judging from both his physical and mental demeanour, done him a power of good.
In his unseeded opponent, the crafty veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber, Murray faced the owner of a silky one-handed backhand, nimble movement and real forehand zip. The German 33-year-old is one of the most consistent men on the tour, residing between 16 and 40 for a decade. He still, he said after reaching his third quarter-final here in the last four years, hoped to improve on that career-high.
Murray, rightly, was wary: “It will be tough, because every time we’ve played we’ve had a lot of close matches. I think he likes the conditions here. He’s played well here the last few years… Yeah, it will be a tricky one, for sure. He’s a talented guy, uses the angles of the court well, plays with a lot of spin. And if you let him dictate the points, he makes you move a lot. So I need to play well.”
And if the edge-of-the-seat drama of the previous night that had seen the exit of Federer was a thriller, this match would take it to a whole new level. It began about an hour late due to rain but it did not take the packed crowd long to get into the fast pace and high quality.
There were precious few chances on either side: a break point in the fifth game against Kohlschreiber, two in ninth against Murray, but both resisted, as they traded dazzling forehands and sliced backhands. Neither would give an inch, the slight German playing with constant aggression, Murray defending but turning that defence into attack in the blink of an eye.
It was inevitable, perhaps, that it would go to a tie-break, and the odds were in favour of the superior Murray serving that he would come through. But Kohlschreiber edged the first lead, 4-2, Murray levelled, only for the German to conjure a backhand down the line winner, and he held for the set, 7-6(4). It had taken precisely an hour, but seemed half that.
As expected, Murray stepped up in the second set, broke in the fourth game, and found some big serving under intense pressure for 5-3.
However, Kohlschreiber was not ready to back off: He simply upped the aggression, almost emulating the famed Federer SABR to work break point, and sure enough, levelled at 5-5. He then had to fend off four deuces and a cruel break point from a dead net-cord, but survive he did, and it headed to another tiebreak after another hour of scintillating tennis. But the drama was only just beginning.
The two men played like gladiators for another 31 minutes, first Murray stealing the chance to serve it out at 6-4, then Kohlschreiber pulling off the latest of several perfect drop winners followed by a swing volley winner.
Time and again, the German came to the net, playing bold and aggressive tennis; each time Murray responded with big serving, terrific defence and fine strikes to the lines.
It was a volley from the German that earned his first match point, 9-8, only to see Murray pull off the shot of the match in a contest packed with great shots—an off forehand slice drop winner. He afterwards admitted it was probably the worst choice of shot in the match, but he got away with it and brought the house down.
The crowd could barely contain itself, and there was raucous support for both men. Six more times Kohlschreiber had match points, most of them on his own serve, but he does not have the powerhouse delivery of Murray, who hit 14 aces to the German’s four. And as he pointed out afterwards, Murray is the best returner in the game.
There were, perhaps, a couple of match points where Kohlschreiber had the play on his racket but went for too much and missed the line. And the set would be determined by two overhit forehands from the German: Murray took it, 7-6(18).
Murray’s superior fitness, strength and experience at this high level of the sport now began to tell. Kohlschreiber’s 33-year-old legs could not maintain the remarkable level of the previous two and a half hours, he was broken in the fourth game and again in the sixth. Murray eventually ran out the winner, 6-1, with the clock already well past 11pm
This was a match to long last in the memory, producing a combination of 93 winners, 35 net plays, and with not a thrown racket or umpire warning throughout. To top it all, the losing Kohlschreiber would talk only of his pride and pleasure in the match they had both played.
“Of course losing is always disappointing, but I’m not sad. I think I played great tennis, one of my best matches. OK, the result is sad, but the way I played, the way I enjoyed myself on the court, nothing to be sad about… I think we both played almost the best tennis we can play.”
Murray expressed it more moderately, as is his style, but he still took considerable pleasure from how he performed:
“I felt like I was playing pretty well and he was playing really good stuff. So I’m much happier with how I’m playing just now. Obviously it was very rewarding to come through a match like that.”
Murray will next play the winner of the last match on court, between No7 seed Lucas Pouille and qualifier Evgeny Donskoy. By midnight, they were only midway through the first set: It was going to be a long night and a tough semi-final for whoever won.