As Andy Murray walked toward his chair after holding serve for a 5-4 lead in the third set of his second-round match in Madrid with Nicolas Almagro, you were entitled to ask yourself, “Why is this guy smiling?” After all, Murray had let the bullish Spaniard back into the match after roaring out the gates and winning the first five games. And if it wasn’t all Almagro from the start of the second set on, it was mostly him.
On the other hand, Murray knows as well as anyone that Almagro isn’t exactly famous for finding his A-game under pressure, his recent win over Rafael Nadal in Barcelona notwithstanding.
As it turned out, any inclination Murray had to trust Almagro’s penchant for choking was justified. For after reaching 40-30 in the 10th game of the third set, Almagro played three terrible points to drop the match, 6-1, 1-6, 6-4, in a brisk three-set tussle that lasted only an hour and 46 minutes.
One of the hazards of being a Murray fan is that, owing to his moods, you never really know what you’re getting on any given day. On this one, though, it was all good—at least at the start.
Murray kicked things off with a decisive hold and made his intentions crystal clear when he reached break point in the very next game. After a long rally, Almagro seemed to lose patience and go for too much with his forehand. The ball flew out and Murray had the first break.
In the next game, Almagro stood up to Murray. But when the No. 7 seed reached game point, he used some spectacular defense to win a long rally during which Almagro failed to put away three different smash opportunities. The game ended when Murray, running at full stretch, hit a well-angled cross-court forehand that Almagro, undoubtedly fatigued from having to run up to and back from the net so often, slapped at with his own forehand. The ball died in the net, Murray led 3-0, and a rout appeared to be in the making.
Murray broke again for 4-0. At that point, the match had featured five long rallies and Murray had won all of them. This looked nothing like the Murray who has become famous for struggling during the clay-court season, matched with a 19-time finalist in clay-court events. After Murray held for 5-0, Almagro called for an injury time-out to have his left foot examined and bandaged.
The treatment helped some, because Almagro moved the scoreboard for the first time after surviving a break point in the next game to stand at 1-5. But Murray held fast, building a 40-0 lead and finishing the 34-minute set with an ace.
It was at that point that Murray’s talent for self-sabotage kicked in and threatened to battle Almagro’s tendency to gag until the bitter end. Murray broke Almagro in the first game of the second set, but then appeared to remember that he traditionally struggles on clay. He allowed Almagro to break right back for 1-all, and that altered the tone of the match.
After a hold by Almagro, Murray failed to capitalize on a game point and surrendered a critical break. By the time Murray trailed 1-3, Almagro had won 15 of the last 19 points, and he would go on to win the next three games to even the match.
The third set was like a fresh start—and a different match. Both men showed resolve, particularly Murray, who struggled through three break points to hold a seven-and-a-half minute third game.
But Almagro didn’t buckle. He held with authority, and Murray answered in kind for 3-2. The match continued on serve, with neither player able to earn a break opportunity until the tenth and final game.
In it, Almagro misplaced his deadly first serve, and when he presented Murray with yet another second serve at match point, Murray whacked it back—and Almagro smacked a backhand into the net to end it.