Rome: Murray d. Nalbandian
The Battle of the Backhand Drops: If Andy Murray’s 6-1, 4-6, 7-5 win over David Nalbandian is remembered in the tennis-history books, it would have to be under that title. Forget aces and forehand winners, the backhand drop shot was the put-away of choice between these two lifetime members of the Good Hands Club and fellow all-time non-Slam-winners. For the last two sets, they pulled each other up and back and all over the court, and in the process gave us red-clay tennis at its finest.
It took a while to develop. Nalbandian was off at the start, and Murray broke out to a 4-0 lead with little resistance. The Scot was loose enough not to worry about his weaknesses; he went after his second serve and his forehand. As for his strength, his return, it was stronger than ever; Murray barely missed one through the first set. He had Nalbandian on a string.
In the second, though, Nalbandian found his range and Murray went back to safe old habits. Soon the rally patterns had been reversed and it was the Argentine who was up in the court, who was coming to the net—he was 22 of 30 there for the day—and who was finishing with his own backhand drop shot. At 4-5, after hardly threatening Murray’s serve all day, Nalbandian hit two forcing returns and broke for the set when Murray drilled a forehand into the net. The rout was now a bout.
The third set was well played and closely fought all the way. Nalbandian held with another backhand drop at 1-1 and broke on a Murray double-fault for 3-1. But Nalbandian immediately became tentative with the lead, sending two easy balls over the baseline for 0-30. He was broken at love.
The cat and mouse games got more elaborate from there. At 3-3, Nalbandian held with yet another backhand drop shot; at 3-4, Murray did the same. At 4-4, the two ran each other virtually into the stands on a couple of points. At 4-5, Murray, one game from defeat and holding the sore back that forced him to skip Madrid, came up with his best, most aggressive tennis of the match. In that game and the next, he threw passivity to the wind, leaned in and went after his backhand, and was rewarded with a net cord winner to break for 6-5.
The final game was a microcosm of the match. Nalbandian started with two great returns of mediocre Murray second serves to go up 15-40. But Murray, who celebrated his 25th birthday today and must have been determined not to do it with a loss, retaliated with a backhand down the line that clipped the outside of the tape. Two points later, the match was over and Murray’s birthday wish was complete, even if the look on his face with still one of squinting pain rather than joyous relief.
Murray plays the winner of Richard Gasquet and Paolo Lorenzi next. It was up and down, and back and forth, against Nalbandian today, but perhaps the last three games will stick with him. Murray played them more aggressively than normal. He played them to win.