NEW YORK—“I’ll see how aggressive I need to be. I won’t give him the same shot twice in a row.”
That’s what Andy Murray said his strategy was as he walked out to play 65th-ranked Denis Istomin on Tuesday night. Murray knew it was windy, and that this favored him. He’s the faster and steadier player, and he could see that junking and grinding was a logical path to victory over the hard-hitting but erratic 26-year-old from Uzbekistan.
It was a logical path, but that wasn’t exactly the one that Murray took as he wound his way to a tough but never seriously in doubt 6-7 (5), 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 fourth-round win. Murray did his share of junking; he used his backhand slice to bring Istomin, a 6’2” baseliner, to net. Murray also did his share of grinding, as he moved Istomin, who isn’t graceful or light on his feet, relentlessly from side to side. But after being ambushed by Istomin in the first-set tiebreaker—he won the last four points—Murray said he began to try to dictate more with his forehand, especially when he was playing with the wind. That uptick in aggression worked. Murray cruised through the second set and, when he went up a break in the third, appeared ready to cruise all the way to a win.
But the underachieving Istomin has the talent to make life difficult for anyone. He played a tight three-setter against Rafael Nadal here in 2010, the year Rafa won the tournament. He’s not the most fluid or stylish player; apparently he saves his style for his eye-poppingly color-coordinated shirt/glasses/headband combinations—tonight, over the course of two bathroom breaks, he showed off the orange and yellow outfits in his extra-loud line. But if Istomin isn’t an artist with the racquet, he can rocket a ball down the line from either side, and he kept Murray off-balance with those shots.
But Murray knocked on the door all night—he was six of 15 on break-point chances—and found just enough vulnerability in his opponent to sneak through the last two sets. The end came in a way that can serve as a summation of the match as a whole. Murray served at 3-4 and went up 40-0. Istomin came up with two strong points to get to 40-30, which sent Murray into a profane spiel (one of many he had on the night). At 40-30, Istomin smacked another strong backhand that pushed Murray out of position. But rather than move forward to take advantage of it, Istomin stood flat footed and hooked an easy forehand wide. Murray had his hold, and he broke in the next game.
This match will be known for two shots by Murray: A horrendously duffed high volley off an Istomin tweener in the second set, and a towering forehand shank at break point at 4-4 in the fourth that landed in and helped earn him the decisive service break. In reality, though, this was a gritty and professional win on a late night, in windy conditions, against a dangerous player, in front of a crowd that wanted a fifth set. As Murray knows, it’s the kind of win you must grind and junk your way through if you’re going to win Grand Slams. Still, he’ll have to play better to beat his next opponent, Stanislas Wawrinka. The Swiss upset Murray here in 2010.
IBM Stat of the Match: In a well-contested four-setter, Murray gave Istomin just four shots at breaking his serve. Murray, by contrast, had 15 break points.
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