Andy Murray can start to look ahead at the French Open after defusing the power game of Juan Martin del Potro to reach the fourth round.
The world No1 has been searching for top form all season and finally found something close to it on a cool, grey day at Roland Garros. Murray saved four set points to win a titanic opener lasting 84 minutes and was in control thereafter in a 7-6 (8), 7-5, 6-0 victory.
It looked a nightmare draw against a player falsely low in the rankings as he continues to work his way back up after wrist problems that almost ended his career. The importance of the first set was illustrated by the 45 seconds Del Potro spent leaning over the net with head in hands after his final forehand curled just wide.
Murray arrived in Paris unsure what to expect of himself after a poor run of form on clay but his prospects for matching last year’s run to the final suddenly look a lot brighter.
The 30-year-old said: “It was obviously an important win for me and a big match because Juan, when he’s playing well, is one of the best players in the world. To be playing him this early on in the slam is obviously not easy, but it can be a very positive thing. You play someone that good, maybe you’re a little bit more switched on.
“It was a good one for me to get through and each set I played better, I started to figure things out again during the match. Maybe I didn’t start the best, but I made some changes in the match tactically. That’s very positive, because I wasn’t doing that for the last few tournaments and the last couple of matches I have done it, and totally turned the matches around.
“I didn’t come here with the mindset that I’m definitely going to go a long way here. I was going to try and just get through the first round and hopefully feel better each day. That’s been the case so far.
“There were things I did today that, if I can do them consistently well over the next week or so, then I could do really well. But I also know where I have come from, even just 10 days or so ago. I was not playing well. So I need to respect that and work hard in practice and concentrate.”
Del Potro’s forehand, accompanied by what Murray described as a “very manly” grunt, is one of the great weapons in tennis today. When he properly unloads, gasps from the crowd are sure to follow, and it put the Argentinian in control of the first set.
Murray saved a set point at 4-5 and then another in a memorable 10th game, missing a sitter forehand before finally breaking back.
The tiebreak was a mini-match in itself, with Murray opening up a 6-4 lead, missing both set points then facing another after Del Potro pulled off a miracle forehand winner off a Murray pass.
But a double fault from the Argentinian made it 7-7 and it was Murray who took his third set point when Del Potro’s forehand landed just wide.
Explaining his reaction, Del Potro said: “Too much frustration. I couldn’t believe that I lost that set, because I had many opportunities to win. I was playing great, great points during the whole first set.”
He might have been 3-0 down in the second set but fought to limit Murray’s advantage to one break and then got his reward when he levelled at 5-5.
Del Potro’s refusal to go away was a defining feature of last year’s memorable Olympic final between the pair, but this time the Argentinian’s resistance proved to be fleeting. Murray broke serve again immediately and, with Del Potro flagging, raced through the fourth set to set up a last-16 clash against either John Isner or young Russian Karen Khachanov.
“Obviously the first set was very important,” said Murray. “The conditions today were very slow and heavy, so coming from behind in those conditions can be difficult, because it feels like you have to work very hard for every point.
“Obviously his reaction at the end of the first set, he was pretty disappointed. He had some opportunities to close it out.”
Asked if he rated it his best performance of the season, Murray said: “I played some good matches at the beginning of the year.
“But definitely during the clay court season, the second and third sets were the best I have played for sure.”
Del Potro came into the match nursing a groin injury, and was a doubt for the tournament because of shoulder and back problems, but he credited Murray for turning the match around.
He said: “I felt I was playing well. I could feel I was hurting him mentally. But it still was extremely complicated, because he was starting to return the balls better.
“My service was not hurting him as much any more later into the match. He was a real number one.
“He’s very smart on court. He has all the shots but also he’s great mentally. I know how important this tournament is for him. I wish him all the best and hopefully he can go far.”