For the seventh year in a row, Andy Murray is in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open. As impressive as that number is, and as big a relief as was his dismissal of Bernard Tomic in three sets on Monday night to get there, it was an uneven performance, gritty rather than fluent.
If Novak Djokovic’s perverse five-set struggle on Sunday gave him heart – Murray said beforehand it would take a degradation of the Serb’s hitherto dominant tennis for a rival to take his title off him – the world No2 knows he has work of his own to do. He had served well in his first three matches but not so convincingly this time, his reliability on first visit to the baseline rarely getting over 60%, and sliding to 44% in the third set, as he won 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 in two and a half hours.
It should have and could have been easier, as he conceded.
“It was a tough match,” he said courtside. “Both of us had our chances. He fought right to the end, but I just was able to make a few more balls. It was quite a scrappy match. Neither of us played our best tennis at the same time.”
The frustration and disappointment arising from failures in four previous finals here is not easily erased. And, although Murray’s fourth win of the draw should comfort him, he will have to serve better than he did against the world No17 if he is to beat his old sparring partner, David Ferrer, on Wednesday, and reach the semi-finals.
“David played a great match against Lleyton the other day,” Murray observed, “and he must have played well tonight to beat John Isner. He’s been at the top of the game for nearly 10 years now. It’s going to be tricky.”
If Murray beats Ferrer (which he has done 12 times out of 18) he will have to get past either Gaël Monfils or Milos Raonic for a shot at the defending champion – if Djokovic is waiting for him there again. That is probable but no longer certain. There are lingering doubts about his fitness.
Playing in Rod Laver Arena – where his father-in-law Nigel Sears collapsed on Saturday night while he was oblivious to the drama during his fretful four-set win over João Sousa – might have been an eerie experience for Murray, as he acknowledged later. “The last few days were very tough,” he said, “a lot of emotions, things changing in my mind, very stressful.”
But he could not afford to be distracted – and Murray must have been relieved that Sears, the father of his pregnant wife, Kim, was fit enough to fly out of Melbourne back to London as he was putting the finishing touches to his victory.
As good as Tomic is, Murray would seem to have his number, because their styles gel nicely – and the Australian is yet to take a set off him in four attempts, although he came close here.
Murray was again awake to his ever nuanced groundstroke, of which there were many. It was a thinker’s match, not a street fight, and Murray seemed to enjoy it immensely, apart from a few wretched patches when his concentration deserted him.
He could not have started better, breaking in the first game. Would it be a procession? Not quite.
As Murray threw the ball up to serve at the start of the third game, he stopped and complained to the chair umpire that the live video feed was still running on the big screen in his eye-line. The issue was quickly resolved. Murray held with an ace.
But his focus slipped in the fourth game and Tomic got the better of a long rally to get back on level terms when Murray shoved a backhand into the net.
Murray got two break points after a 32-shot rally in the sixth game with an angled drop shot that Tomic could only applaud – and then the Australian made a present of his serve with a loose forehand into the tramlines.
Tomic’s serve fell to pieces and Murray broke to love for 5-2. The free-hitting Queenslander found three stunning groundstrokes that left Murray standing in the eighth game, but he survived the dip and served out the set to 15.
The second followed a similar pattern, Murray not quite putting the points to bed as quickly as he would like, but he toughed it out.
In the third, the contest got tighter. Tomic, so often accused of indifference on court but actually comfortable in his relaxed and potent style, pressed Murray all the way. His fastest serve of the evening, 127mph down the middle got him out of deuce in the 11th game and a 10th ace helped him to a vital hold.
Murray forced the tie-break, and raised his first-serve percentage above 70, which applied unbearable pressure on Tomic. He swapped ends 4-2 up with the ball in his hand as thrashed his 17th ace. Tomic’s lassitude did the rest. Tired shots gifted Murray four match points. He saved three of them, but could do little but belt a wide, away-swinging serve long.