If Andy Murray is to reach the French Open final for the second year in a row, confounding critics who say he will not make it out of the first week, he will have to shrug off the lethargy that plagued the start of his campaign last year and has struck again this week.
Last year he survived two early five-setters. This year, as world No1, his two opening gambits have each taken him four sets against lower-ranked rivals, when he might have got the job done with quick, cleaner checkmates.
In the third round against Juan Martín del Potro he will not be allowed the luxury of easing himself into the fight the way he was against world No85 Andrey Kuznetsov in the first round and world no50 Martin Klizan on Thursday, when he won 6-7 (3), 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 (3) on Court Suzanne Lenglen in three hours and 34 minutes.
For an hour against Klizan, Murray’s gears refused to mesh. For the next hour or so, the Slovak was eating his dirt. Then the match took a sharp swerve at the start of the fourth for the tensest of finishes.
Having struggled to stay in touch with the Scot, the rangy left-hander was dramatically revived after receiving treatment for his serving shoulder. He was 3-0 up before Murray had even mouthed his loud complaint about the interruption, railing at his box and the umpire, to little effect on either front. He was on his own here, and needed to get his composure back against an opponent who had tried all his tricks against the French qualifier Laurent Lokoli on Tuesday – and got away with them. As Klizan started pounding down his serve at 196kph to go 4-1 up, his shoulder looked just fine.
John McEnroe observed courtside: “How long has this been going on in our game? It brings a little drama, sure but, from the standpoint of a player who has worked on his fitness all year to try to get an edge, I can see how that could be absolutely infuriating. That’s not fair.”
Del Potro, meanwhile, was detained for only an hour-and-a-half on Court 2 before the Spaniard Nicolas Almagro retired with a left-knee injury. The Argentinian, who lost to Murray in the Olympic final last year but beat him in the Davis Cup, was a set apiece at 6-3, 3-6 and 1-1 in the third when Almagro withdrew.
He said later: “It could be another great battle – if I feel good. Andy is one of the favourites to win this tournament. Now I know his game a lot, but I need to be in good shape and physically be stronger if we play a long match, long rallies.”
Murray said, “Juan Martín, in my opinion, plays better than his ranking. He’s come back from injury and has had a lot of tough draws this year. He’s playing well. I’m sure it’ll be a great atmosphere.”
Klizan arrived in Paris complaining of pain in his left calf and said he had reluctantly withdrawn from three lead-up tournaments at the last minute. In the first round against Lokoli he collapsed dramatically in the fourth set before recovering to take the fifth. The furious Frenchman accused him of feigning injury and refused to shake his hand.
Murray started poorly again, saving his first break with four minutes and dropping serve at the next call – while Klizan went for his shots from the first ball. In the seventh game a lady in pink arrived as Klizan raised his racket to serve. He paused. To whistles and boos, she eased slowly out of his eye-line, ascending the stairs with all the hauteur of a diva and disappeared from view.
The Slovak, chortling and chuntering, held. But errors began to feed into his groundstrokes, his temper quickened and the shape of his game began to unravel. He was there for the taking. Klizan did not look a good bet to finish the fight – but he took the tie-break. Murray was livid with himself, rightly so.
Then he hit a pleasing tempo. From 1-2 down he won five games in a row to take him into the third looking capable of another whirlwind finish, drilling the ball deep and wide, and all looked set for a quick denouement. By the time they reached the end of the fourth on level terms, however, nerves jangled like loose change.
They traded breaks and, two points away from a fifth set, Murray double-faulted when a door slammed shut off-court. A baby cried as he served to hold for 5-5, and he smiled. When they got to the second tie-break, Murray, who had botched a few good chances earlier, finally drove the dagger home – probably two hours later than he would have liked.
“Some times you think you’ve hit a good shot and he comes up with an unbelievable winner,” he said of Klizan. “When he’s controlling with his forehand it’s very difficult. I certainly didn’t want a fifth set, but in the end there were some entertaining points, some great shots.”