French Open 2017: Andy Murray hails ‘important win’ over Del Potro in latest dramatic contest
Andy Murray is through to the last 16 of the French Open in Paris after a straight-sets win over Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro
Middle Saturday at Roland Garros was already proving to be a day of firsts, with more of them lined up by middle Sunday.
The always-popular Richard Gasquet, one of six single-handed players still in the men’s draw, was aiming to win his 100th Grand Slam match against Gael Monfils.
Both Frenchman are now 30 years old, and after setting a record of 30 over-30s in the second round of a Grand Slam, this Roland Garros was still boasting a remarkable 13 of them in the third round—more than half the remaining players.
There were no fewer than four former Junior French Open champions into the third round—with all four, Monfils, Gasquet, Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic in the same quarter.
Feliciano Lopez, one of six remaining Spaniards and one of six lefthanders to reach the third was not just the oldest man left in the draw—he turns 36 in September—but was bidding to equal his only other fourth-round run at Roland Garros, 13 years after the last. He also owned the longest active streak of Grand Slam appearances: this is his 61st.
And all six of the Grand Slam champions in the draw remained unbeaten thus far. On this overcast Saturday, four would aim to join nine-time French Open champion and defending champion Novak Djokovic in the fourth round. And two of them would play each other to do so.
World No1 and three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray reached the final here last year, the first time a Briton had done so since 1937. Former world No4 and the US Open champion in 2009, Juan Martin del Potro, was a semi-finalist here in that same breakthrough year and a quarter-finalist in 2012—the last time the tall Argentine played here as his career-long fight with injury and wrist surgery continued.
Murray had suffered physical concerns of his own earlier this year—an elbow injury and a bout of shingles—but del Potro also talked this week of a small groin injury, though his early finish against the injured Nicolas Almagro may have helped his cause.
Even aside from such concerns, this was billed as one of the highlights in a lively schedule. For although they had met infrequently since del Potro’s early surge up the rankings, their recent meetings came in passionate situations.
The first, in the final of Rio last year, determined Olympic gold for Murray, silver for the del Potro. Not long after, in Glasgow, their five-hour, five-set showdown in the Davis Cup semis was key to the tie. Del Potro prevailed, and went on to lead Argentina to its first title after Murray had led Great Britain to its first in 79 years the winter before.
Not it would be the big Argentine who came out at full throttle, and when he hits big, he is hits very big. He broke Murray in the third game, threatened again in the fifth, and fought off break points to lead 5-3.
But when del Potro served for the set, Murray was ruthless in turning defence into attack, and ruthless in running the big man the full length of the court with lobs and drops. He slotted a pass down the line to bring up break points, only to hit a forehand long, but he soon had another break chance, and this time converted it, 5-5.
Neither man gave much quarter, and they headed to a tie-break after well over an hour’s play, and that too would provide ample drama and shot making to thrill the French crowd.
Del Potro got the first edge, Murray pulled level with a 21-shot-rally, and took a 6-4 lead after winning two net points. He then had the set on his racket: first he hit a backhand long, then del Potro, a far more athletic mover than his size suggests, made a reflex return from a smash, and the arena erupted.
Now the Argentine had the set at his bidding, but double faulted, then gave up another set-point, and it was Murray’s turn again. Del Potro’s last shot just missed the line and Murray sat down, 7-6(8) to the good. The Argentine stood draped over the net in disappointment for what seemed an age, thumped his water bottle in fury, and looked a beaten man.
But he was not—certainly not yet. That set had taken an hour and 24 minutes. The second set would add more than another hour, even though Murray got an immediate break. He pulled and pushed his opponent back and forth, forward and back: It was vicious but tactically brilliant from the Briton.
Del Potro took on board anti-inflammatories after five games, and it took a few more games for them to kick in: Sure enough, he then raised his level and broke back at the key moment, 5-5. But Murray was now playing perhaps his best tennis of the tournament, defending superbly, pulling off perfect drop shots, and serving with swing and accuracy. The Briton broke again, and as good as broke his man, too, to serve out the set, 7-5.
Murray now went on a tear, breaking three times, the last of them with a final drop-lob combo. Del Potro’s last hurrah came at 15-40 with Murray serving for the match, but the Briton hit a winner onto the baseline and the job was done, 6-0.
One more milestone was marked today: It was not just del Potro’s 101st clay match but his 100th Grand Slam match. He was, naturally, disappointed, with the result, but his usual generous self in defeat.
“Yes, too much frustration. I couldn’t believe that I lost that set, because I had many opportunities to win. I had been playing great, great points during the whole first set. But this happens when you play against the No1 in the world or a great champion like Andy or Rafa or Roger.”
He added: “I felt [I was] playing so good for the two hours and a half, and I was enjoying the match. The crowd was enjoying the match, too. And I think we made a great show for them. But in the end, Andy plays better in the particular moments, and he won.”
Murray was particular pleased to have come through such a test, especially after some in and out form in recent weeks:
“Well, I believe in myself, so even when things aren’t going well, I believe I can turn it around. It’s not easy, but if you do the right things in practice, it’s going to come.
“It was obviously an important win for me and a big match, because Juan, when he’s playing well, is one of the best players in the world.
“Mentally I feel pretty good. I’m working things out whilst I’m playing the matches, and that’s the really, really important part of my game, making adjustments. The tactical side is very important for me. Even when I went behind today, I wasn’t worried. Same in the match with Klizan. I made changes and turned the match around.”
This mental confidence and Murray’s return, it seems, to full physical fitness, will be music to his supporters’ ears but less welcome news for his next opponent. The arrival of rain over Roland Garros did little to help the cause of No21 seed John Isner and the 21-year-old No53-ranked Karen Khachanov. The big Russian led by one tie-break set when the covers came onto Court 2.
Unseeded Fernando Verdasco was on and off court in an hour and a half, beating No22 seed Pablo Cuevas 6-2, 6-1, 6-3. The former top-10 Spaniard had already taken out No9 seed Alexander Zverev, and will play the winner between Kei Nishikori and Hyeon Chung—also halted by rain.