Indian Wells 2017: Andy Murray falls at first hurdle to all-guns-firing Vasek Pospisil
The world number one loses to 6-4, 7-6 (5) to Varek Pospisil in the Brit's first game at the Indian Wells tournament
If ever the oft-repeated mantra of the tennis player—never look beyond the next match—was writ large over a draw, it was borne out by Andy Murray’s experience in the desert-and-mountain beauty of Indian Wells on Saturday night.
When the 64-man draw was made less than a week ago, world No1 Murray found himself in the top slot for the first time at a Masters tournament—and what a Masters to do it in. In 12 of the last 13 years, Indian Wells’ champion has been one of the three most prolific Masters champions in tennis, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. But the draw this year squarely pointed at Murray to win his first.
Jaws hit the floor when all three champions fell into the bottom quarter of the draw along with Juan Martin del Potro and two of the young players tipped for the top very soon, Nick Kyrgios and Alexander Zverev. Throw in former top-10 players, Fernando Verdasco and Kevin Anderson, and it was task as tall as the Santa Rosa mountains that fringe this desert oasis for one of those champions to make it to the semis let alone set a final against Murray.
For his opening match, Murray drew a qualifier or the veteran Yen-Hsun Lu—who had not taken a set from Murray in their meeting in Indian Wells in 2013 or in any match since. Murray’s first seed, Feliciano Lopez, ranked 34, had barely made the seedings, and Murray had beaten him in all 10 meetings. To reach the quarters, the Briton could meet Roberto Bautista Agut or Pablo Carreno Busta, and was expected to have few problems against either Spaniard.
And by the time Murray took on his qualifier, even the next seed in his quarter had lost: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga out to unseeded Fabio Fognini.
But Murray, more than anyone, would certainly not have under-estimated his first opponent. The conditions in Indian Wells can catch out even the best—altitude, heat, dry air, slower courts but lighter balls, and so on, mean adjustments have to be well bedded in. And Murray was lately flown in from winning on the fast courts of Dubai.
Meanwhile, qualifiers have come through competitive matches before reaching the cutting edge of the main draw, and then a Round 1 match before the seeded players get under way. They can, in short, proved to be a handful.
Vasek Pospisil was just such a qualifier with all those advantages. But there has always been considerably more to the Canadian’s game than the average. He is tall, powerful, plays aggressively, and has honed his forward game with a real enthusiasm for doubles competition.
In 2013, he made a memorable run to the semis on home ground in Montreal, breaking the top 40 and almost beating compatriot Milos Raonic: He lost the third-set tie-break. That same autumn, he gave Federer a scare in Basel, finally losing their semi contest, 5-7, in the third. By 2014, he was inside the top 30, but showing frequent signs of back problems. He was, however, building a solid fan base for his tennis, his modest personality, and a zestful doubles partnership with Jack Sock—they won the Wimbledon doubles title among others.
That attacking game also took him to the quarters in Wimbledon’s singles draw in 2015, where he played three five-setters and a four-setter before losing to Murray. Last year, though, he hit a brick wall, and 15 first-round losses seemed to drain what confidence he had.
Then he recruited Aussie doubles veteran Mark Woodforde last autumn, and gradually Pospisil’s confidence and fitness were returning. Not least, he spearheaded two singles wins over Dan Evans and Kyle Edmund in Davis Cup, and won a couple of arduous three-setters on his way to this latest meet with Murray in Round 2, ranked 129.
The advice of his coach was, it appeared, ringing in the Canadian’s ears from the start: He came to the net against the Murray serve in the first point. And although he would pass up three break points, he lived with Murray through some long rallies, coming forward at almost every opportunity. They were locked at 1-1 after 12 minutes.
The weaker backhand wing of the Canadian let him down for a break in the fourth game, but he went after the Murray serve in the next to break back. With half an hour on the clock, Murray broke again, but then the momentum switched as Pospisil showed he was willing to build his advantage patiently for the net kill—here a drop shot, now a lob, next a chip return and then a 130mph-plus ace. He broke back and went on a six-game streak from 2-4 down to take the set, 6-4.
He got a quick break in the second set, too, 2-0, but Murray, who was struggling to get any rhythm on his serve, broke straight back. They would head to a tie-break.
Murray pulled off a perfect lob to take the first point, but it was again an attacking Pospisil who took the advantage, going 6-2 with some explosive serve and volley winners.
And though Murray closed the gap, Pospisil earned four match points, 6-2, captivating the big crowd with his old-school tennis. Murray saved the first three match points, but the Canadian grabbed the fourth with a forehand winner, 7-6(5).
Pospisil, naturally, was jubilant: This was without question the biggest win of his career, and affirmation that his partnership with Woodforde was proving to be a fruitful one.
“If I pick a handful of great moments in my career, this is definitely one of them. To beat the No1 player and somebody as accomplished as Andy, one of the greats of the game, is amazing.”
He went on:
“I feel like on a comeback trail. I had a tough year last year for many, many different reasons. I feel the last couple months I really found my hunger and my motivation to be back on the court training hard again.
“I felt like a big result was coming, because I believe in my abilities, but just kind of had to put the pieces together again. [This is] the biggest win of my career, and I’m just thrilled right now.”
Murray, who has rarely come alight in Indian Wells—and he lost his second match here last year—was disappointed in what had been something of a lack-lustre performance.
“I served a few double faults, especially in the first set at important moments, which didn’t help things. He definitely started to play better in the second set, he was being aggressive and coming to the net, and played some great reflex volleys at important moments and deserved to win.”
And as if to prove the point that top players should never look beyond the first round, Pospisil now plays another qualifier, Dusan Lajovic, who beat Lopez 6-2, 4-6, 7-6.
Also in this half, David Goffin survived a severe challenge from the fast-rising young 20-year-old, Karen Khachanov, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3. But while No7 seed Tsonga lost, No10 seed Gael Monfils came back from 3-6 down to win 6-0-6-1 and will next face No20 seed, John Isner.
The highest-remaining seed in the half is No3 Stan Wawrinka, and he sailed to the third round, where he plays No28 seed Philipp Kohlschreiber, but the Swiss will not be counting his chickens. He will be only too aware just how close the German came to beating Murray last week in Dubai.