Madrid Masters 2014: Andy Murray survives Nicolas Almagro assault
Madrid Masters 2014: Andy Murray survives a second-set fightback to beat Nicolas Almagro 6-1 1-6 6-4 and reach third round
Andy Murray’s section of the draw may have been eased by the withdrawal of his quarter’s top seed, Roger Federer.
It may have looked even rosier when his alternative quarter-final opponent, Tommy Robredo, lost in his opening match. And by the time Murray took to court for the first match of his Madrid Masters campaign, it had taken on an even more positive look with the exit of his first scheduled seed, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga—in straight sets to qualifier Santiago Giraldo.
The result was that Murray could not face a seed until the semi-finals, and that was just what the doctor ordered for the Briton who was playing his first tour match on clay since he retired in his opening match at the Rome Masters almost a year ago.
Murray would go on to miss Roland Garros because of the same back injury and eventually, in September, resort to surgery.
His long absence from competition resulted in a slip in the rankings followed by a steady return to form on the hard courts at the start of 2014. He reached the quarter-finals at the Australian Open, then made the tricky transition to American clay for Davis Cup, before heading indoors to Rotterdam for a quarter-final finish and Acapulco to reach the semis.
Moderate runs in Indian Wells and Miami were followed by his first test on European clay in Davis Cup in Italy, but the demands of a heavy, uneven court, rain and wind, not to mention three back-to-tack rubbers, began to show. Murray looked tired as went down to clay exponent Fabio Fognini, so it came as no surprise that he opted out of Monte Carlo to recuperate at home.
But ahead of Madrid, he has put in some hard training blocks in Valencia—practising with David Ferrer—and in Paris with Tsonga. Clay has never been his favourite surface, as evidenced by his record: Not one of his 28 titles, nor even one of his further 14 finals, has come on clay.
And there was the rub. As luck would have it, the draw that had opened up so nicely threw in a difficult first hurdle in the shape of a man who had only won titles on clay, only reached finals on clay: 12 and nine of them respectively.
Nicolas Almagro, despite boasting a game that looks at home on hard courts, with big serves and big ground-strokes from a glorious single-handed backhand, is a formidable shot-maker on the red dirt. And here he was, playing in front of his home crowd and with a first victory in 11 attempts over clay-court wizard Rafael Nadal in Barcelona a fortnight ago.
There were two more factors in this first clay encounter since Almagro beat Murray in four sets at Roland Garros in 2008.
The Spaniard had only just come through a demanding two-and-a-half hour three-setter the day before against Andrey Golubev, and sustained a foot strain in the process.
Murray, however, had led the on-court tribute on Monday to his long-standing friend Elena Baltacha, the former British women’s No1 who died at the weekend. This was his first match since, and also his first tournament since parting ways with coach Ivan Lendl at the Miami Masters.
It looked, through most of the first set, as though Almagro’s foot would make this a very one-sided affair. Murray broke serve twice to lead 5-0, and the Spaniard called for the trainer.
There was little the medic could do, so Almagro continued without treatment, and picked up one game before Murray sealed the set, 6-1.
Murray had been able to play well within himself, serving solidly, moving well around the baseline, throwing in the occasional drop shot. But come the second set, Almagro picked up the pace and began to show what a dangerous player he can be.
The first three games were scrappy as each tried to take control, but Murray began to make errors as Almagro bombarded him with angled backhands, swinging forehands and his signature backhand down the line. Almagro snatched an early break and, showing the kind form that had taken Nadal by surprise in Barcelona, emulated the Briton with a surging 6-1 set.
In the third set, Almagro had to play catch-up throughout courtesy of serving second, but he looked solid. For a man of just 6ft, the Spaniard has one of the most successful serves on the tour, and dropped only two points on his first serve in the set. Indeed he lost only four points on his second serve, and most of those came with the first pressure game, serving at 4-5 to save the match. Murray defended strongly until Almagro hit his usually sound backhand wide. The match was the Briton’s, 6-4, after a testing hour and three-quarters.
Murray afterwards credited his own resilience for much of his success: “I hung in and got the job done. It’s what I needed to do. He’s a very tough guy to beat on this surface. Certainly moving a lot better at the end of the match and hitting the ball a lot bigger than he was at the beginning. So that was a good one for me to come through.”
Murray next plays Giraldo, a finalist in Barcelona, but further down the line, should he reach the semis, he is likely to meet either Nadal or No6 seed Tomas Berdych. Both scored impressive and speedy victories, Nadal over Juan Monaco, 6-1, 6-0, and Berdych over Kevin Anderson, 6-1, 6-4.