INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—The consensus was that Andy Murray had played it smart by forgoing the easy money in Dubai this year and taking a little extra time off to get his latest Australian Open final-round defeat out of his system. He certainly couldn’t do any worse than he had the last two years at Indian Wells. Murray didn’t win a set here in either 2011 or 2012.
But any calls for optimism in 2013 were quickly squelched when Murray made it seven straight sets lost in the desert against Evgeny Donskoy today. Rather than appearing rested and refreshed, Murray looked sluggish as he let the 22-year-old Russian, a talented, meat-and-potatoes power baseliner with a Howitzer forehand, push him around for an hour or so. Murray has learned to play aggressively over the years, but his default mode will always be to win with defense and counter-punching. That didn’t work against Donskoy, who was hitting with abandon early and knocking off Murray’s 80 M.P.H. second serves.
But Donskoy’s nothing-to-lose attitude disappeared as soon as he had, well, something to lose. Serving at 5-3, Donskoy double-faulted at 30-30. On break point, Murray hit a backhand approach that found the sideline. It looked the match had turned.
And it looked like it would keep turning in Murray's direction two games later. At 5-5, he began to recognize that Donskoy’s second serve was coming in at roughly the same speed, and the in the same middle-of-the-box location, as his own. Murray pushed forward enough to coax a double fault from Donskoy and earn six break points in an 11-minute and 30-second game. But Donskoy held on and turned around to break Murray for the set with a superb dipping backhand pass that handcuffed the Brit. Donskoy celebrated with a leap. It looked as if the Murray curse at Indian Wells might stay in effect for another year.
In reality, the match really had turned in Murray’s direction, and it would do so for good at 2-2 in the second set. Donskoy, feeling the pressure on his second serve, double faulted twice and steered an easy forehand volley wide to give up the break. Murray was—despite some periodic returns to passivity, and a Donskoy game that never went away completely—home free.
Donskoy is currently ranked No. 83, has never been higher than No. 68, and is just 4-16 over his four-year ATP career. But his trajectory is pointing upward, and his forehand and drop shot made more than a few people take notice today. As for Murray, he has his first win at Indian Wells since 2010, and his first win of any sort since beating Roger Federer in the semis of the Australian Open nearly six weeks ago. He’ll play Yen-Hsun Lu next.