Andy Murray, the No. 4 seed in this Rome Masters, easily rolled through a first-set tiebreaker against Richard Gasquet (7-1), after which we were entitled to think the fragile Frenchman would quietly go away, with something like a minor moral victory that left him at no great risk of over-exertion.
But Gasquet, a semifinalist at this event last year, had other plans—and those were greatly abetted by his surly, discontented, potty-mouthed opponent. Gasquet's comeback was prefigured by the way Murray had failed to serve out the first set when he had the chance, and as the second got underway, the entire house of cards began to tumble. The next thing you know, it was a set apiece—and Gasquet would go on to win it, 6-7 (1), 6-3, 6-2.
So let's cut right to the chase, a.k.a. set three, which began after a lengthy changeover during which the music blaring out of the loudspeakers around the court was not merely "electric," it was downright freaky. That set a nice stage for Murray to lapse into his self-abusing and grumpy worst—a human, Adidas-wearing version of Edvard Munch's famous expressionist painting, The Scream.
Murray complained about the shadows mottling the court, while cursing a blue streak and casting vicious glances at the ATP supervisors and umpire sitting nearby. You could hardly blame Murray, although if he thought it was hard to see the ball on court, he ought to have tried watching from my living room, where it was downright impossible.
Murray took no comfort from the fact that Gasquet started the final set with a prodigous double fault. Gasquet appeared to double fault again after leveling at 15-all, but he challenged the call and chair umpire Carlos Bernardes upheld the challenge. Then Murray challenged the overturned challenge. It was just one of the many times that he dragged Bernardes out of the chair, sometimes seemingly just for the hell of it.
(I can see where that might be fun for a player; let me write Serena Williams a note suggesting that she contemplate doing the same should she ever find Eva Asderaki officiating one of her clay-court matches.)
With Bernardes hopping in and out of his chair, Gasquet's serves sending up puffs of smoke (it was the only way for Murray, and us, to tell where they landed), Murray kvetching, that first game finally was resolved in Gasquet's favor. Whereupon an infant in the stands began wailing, and the television audience could hear Bernardes ask, through his open mike, "We lost one ball?"
In other words, it was good stuff—if you like a good old-fashioned mess.
The next game was hardly better, but Murray held. The third game was a masterpiece—the game that ought to be shown if forcing someone to watch tennis ever noses out waterboarding as the preferred form of torture. It started innocently enough, with Gasquet racing out to a 40-o lead. Then he made three errors to allow Murray to deuce. This began a back-and-forth sequence that featured six deuces and three break points. I don't know which was worse—Murray's inability to convert critical deuce and break points, or Gasquet's repeated failure to win two points in a row from deuce. Let's call it a toss-up.
The key thing, though, is that Gasquet held the game. And given how easy it is to get under Murray's skin, holding that game might have been just as valuable to Gasquet as a service break of his own. Although Murray followed with an easy hold for 2-2, his game was running away from him, going downhill.
Gasquet scored the key break after he held for 3-2. With Murray serving at 15-30, Gasquet played a very smart, conservative point—yes, I just used "smart" and "Gasquet" in the same sentence! It was one of the longest points of the match; Gasquet played it carefully but aggressively, and it ended when Murray smacked an on-the-run backhand error.
I thought his head was going to explode.
Although Murray wiped away the first break point with a nice forehand, he made yet another backhand error (it was his Achilles heel on the day) to go down, 2-4.
The rest was academic, and it ended fittingly—with Gasquet flying around the court, acrobatically tagging backhand overheads and feathering drop shots (why do I think this guy ought to have been a ballet dancer?). By the end, the clock was tickling the three-hour mark (it fell under a minute short), both men were covered in clay-dust that had turned black from perspiration, and Murray slowly shuffled off the court in what looked like ski boots (his sneaks plus those attractive ankle braces), his head hanging low.
Stat of the match: Murray was a preposterous 2 of 17 on break points, but Gasquet ought not be the one to point an accusatory finger. He was 6 of 16. And that gives you a pretty good idea of the kind of match it was.