French Open: Andy Murray goes the distance

Andy Murray celebrates victory in the third round of the French Open. Picture: Getty
Andy Murray celebrates victory in the third round of the French Open. Picture: Getty

The good news is that Andy Murray is all right. His nerves may be frayed at the edges, the knuckles of his right hand are a little bloodied but, save for a bit of cramp, the Scot is into the fourth round of the French Open more or less unscathed.

It took 40 fraught minutes for him to put away Philipp Kohlschreiber yesterday, finishing off a match that started in the sunshine of Saturday afternoon, was called off court due to bad light at 9.39pm that evening and resumed 15 hours and 48 minutes later under leaden skies and in a chill wind. Serving first in the fifth set was an advantage but with the score balanced on a knife-edge at 7-7, every point was like a match point; any careless error could cost either man the match. This was as tense as it gets but with one final backhand return, Murray ended the drama and won 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 12-10.

The slightly more worrying news is that he has to be back at work again today to face Fernando Verdasco, the man who gave him his greatest challenge at Wimbledon last summer. That five-set epic lasted for three hours and 27 minutes and after his exertions over the weekend, Murray will not want to face that sort of workload again.

His five sets with Kohlschreiber was the first time he had gone the distance since having back surgery last September and made to run like a whippet by the German world No 24, his muscles ached and seized. At least there was no serious damage done but as he winced and grimaced and hobbled around the court on Saturday night, frustrated and angry that he had let slip the lead in every set – and missed a backhand that could have given him match point three games before play was abandoned – he looked as if he was ready for the knackers’ yard.

“I was up in every set, and so to not finish at the end of the fourth set when I was up 4‑2 serving 30‑Love was obviously tough,” Murray said, now looking rested and relieved. “But physically in the fifth set I was struggling; I was cramping. So I was disappointed obviously that I wasn’t able to finish in four sets. But at the same time, you know, stopping the match probably helped me a little bit, because if I had played seven or eight more games, probably wouldn’t have been great.

“It was the first five‑set match I played since my surgery and obviously playing late in heavy conditions is tough on the legs in the evening. He makes you do a lot of running, as well. He uses the angles extremely well. Once he’s in control of the point, it’s tough to get him out of that. I did quite a lot of running last night. I was glad I managed to come through.”

There were times when Murray was brilliant, there were times when he was annoyed and fretful but, in the end and after four hours and seven minutes spread over the two days, he got the job done. He has now won his last four five-setters and has won 13 of his last 15 marathons, a record that stretches back to the US Open in 2007. During that run, only Novak Djokovic and Verdasco have managed to beat him over the full distance although Verdasco’s win at the Australian Open in 2009 was aided and abetted by the virus that had felled the Scot a couple of days before.

Knowing that he could not afford to give Kohlschreiber so much as an inch yesterday, Murray made sure he was running at full speed from the very start. After five fitful hours of sleep, he was up early and practising on the Court Suzanne Lenglen before the spectators had had their morning coffee. Then, instead of retreating to the locker room for the usual pre-match preparations, he headed to the practise courts and hit there for half an hour until his match was called. By the time he faced Kohlschreiber again, he was firing on all cylinders.

Any missed opportunity or mistimed shot was greeted with fury and disgust and at one point, he reverted to his old ploy of punching his racket strings in frustration – hence the bloody knuckles. When it was over, he sank to his haunches and roared, more in relief than delight. Only Djokovic has ever kept him on court longer – in the Australian Open semi-final in 2012 and the US Open final later that year – and Murray knew he had been pushed to the limit.

“I didn’t feel great physically on Saturday night, whereas in a lot of the other five‑set matches I have played I have felt very good,” he said. “This was a very tough one for me to come through. But that’s really the point of doing the training. I think I lost my first few five‑set matches, I was like 1‑4 or something at the start, so I have won quite a few of my last 15, 16 five‑setters. That’s what the training is for.”

That training will, with luck, ensure he can recover in time to deal with Verdasco. The Spaniard also had to finish off his third round game yesterday but he picked up where he left off the night before and continued with his 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 thrashing of Richard Gasquet. He knows Murray of old having lost all but one of their previous ten matches but this will be their first meeting on clay – and Murray is preparing for the worst.

“Not many people think I play particularly well on clay, so I’d say that would give him an edge there,” Murray said. “He’s obviously had some good results on clay but he plays well on every surface. He’s had good results on grass. When he plays, he plays well. He’s incredibly talented, a very, very tough player. I need to play a good match and do everything I can to be fresh for tomorrow. My job is to go out there and give 100 per cent of what I’ve got on the day, and hopefully that will be enough.”