Murray found something extra Saturday: A way to be his old self again

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“At times today, Murray wasn’t at his best,” Tennis Channel commentator Leif Shiras said after Andy Murray’s nearly three-hour 7-6 (8), 7-5, 6-0 grind-down of Juan Martin del Potro at the French Open on Saturday. “But he always dug deep to find something extra.”

As far as match summaries go, that was about as concise and accurate as they come. Murray’s win wasn’t as straightforward as the scoreline may indicate, but his wins rarely are. 

In the 83-minute opening set, Murray was broken early. He had to save four set points, and he blew a couple of his own, before finally prevailing. In the second set, he served for it at 5-4 and was broken. Along the way, Murray flashed his usual array of sarcastic thumbs ups and head nods in the direction of his player box, and made an obligatory protest of Spidercam’s presence. Even when he was cruising in the third set, Murray continued to complain until his coach, Ivan Lendl, finally had to tell him to “check the scoreboard.”

In other words, Murray looked more like his No. 1 self than he has all season.

Shiras’ comment wasn’t just an apt summary of how Murray played against Del Potro; it was an apt summary of how he played at the end of 2016, when he sprinted down the homestretch to nose out Novak Djokovic for the top ranking. When the other members of the Big Four are clicking, Roger Federer goes into “full flight,” Djokovic plays “clinical” tennis and Rafael Nadal “rampages” past his helpless opponent. Murray, to use a metaphor from one of his favorite sports, takes his share of punches, but stays upright long enough to win in a decision. With most of his opponents, he can keep the ball in play a little longer and come up with something a little more creative when he needs it. Murray misses just often enough to maintain his outrage, but he plays well for long enough to win anyway.

Murray understands that easy wins and “master classes” aren’t his forte, the way they are his peers’. His specialty is making a match move in his direction just when you think it might move in his opponent’s. 

“It was tough because I think he was playing much better than me in the first set,” Murray said of Del Potro. “Both of those [first] two sets could have gone either way.”

“I expected a very tough match, and the first set was very, very important, I think,” said Murray, who lost his last match with Del Potro in five sets in the Davis Cup semifinals last fall. “Whoever won that first set had big momentum.”

Last year at the French Open, Murray had to go five sets in each of his first two rounds. This year his road hasn’t been quite as rough, but it hasn’t been smooth, either. He beat Andrey Kuznetsov and Martin Klizan in four sets, and he hardly looked like the top seed in either of those matches. But after wearing Del Potro down in the first two sets, Murray put together his best sustained run of play of 2017 in the third set. His grumbling and chuntering aside, Murray was masterful in the way he returned Del Potro’s serve and moved the big man out of position.

“I’m starting to play better,” Murray said. “I was really looking forward to playing the French Open. I struggled the last six or seven weeks coming in … Each day I’m feeling a little bit better. I hope I can keep it going.”

Is it too late for Murray to mount a challenge for his first title in Paris? An optimistic fan of his might say that he started slowly at the French Open in 2016, but by the semifinals he was playing some of the best tennis of his career in his win over Stan Wawrinka. A pessimistic Murray fan—and there are a few—might counter that turnarounds typically don’t happen in a day, or a week, or even two weeks. Djokovic found that out in Rome. After summoning his best tennis of 2017 to beat Dominic Thiem in the semis, he couldn’t repeat it against Alexander Zverev in the final.

Murray should have a chance to build more momentum in the fourth round, where he’s slated to face either John Isner or Karen Khachanov. Murray is 8-0 against the American, and he would also be a heavy favorite against the young Russian. 

Murray isn’t painting masterpieces or teaching master classes just yet. But on Saturday he found that something extra. He found a way to be Andy Murray again, and that’s never a bad place to start.

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