Andy Murray survived a major scare to keep his bid for a record-equalling fourth Queen's Club title on track with a hard-fought victory over Luxembourg's Gilles Muller in the quarter-finals on Friday.
Murray dropped the first set and was taken to a tie-break in the second before finally prevailing 3-6, 7-6 (7/2), 6-4 to reach the last four at the Wimbledon warm-up event for the fourth time.
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Watched by Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho for the second time this week, this was Murray's least convincing display of the tournament.
But he did just enough to secure a semi-final meeting with John Isner of the United States or Serbia's Viktor Troicki on Saturday.
The 28-year-old last triumphed at Queen's in 2013 and if he lifts the giant silver trophy on Sunday he will join Boris Becker, John McEnroe, Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt as the joint
Although Murray still has plenty of room for improvement as he fine-tunes his grass-court preparations ahead of Wimbledon, the Scot can at least take heart from the gritty way he subdued the big-serving Muller to extend his record since getting married in April to 18 wins from 19 matches.
He also now holds a 23-5 career record at Queen's, making him the firm favourite in a tournament bereft of star names following surprise defeats for Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka and Grigor Dimitrov.
Muller, 32, was hoping to benefit from some inside information about Murray as his coach Jamie Delgado is a close friend of the Scot.
More significantly, the world number 48 had blasted 56 aces in his first two matches in a tournament whose fast surface has been a major bonus for the big servers.
Murray's serve isn't quite so potent and, with his groundstrokes erratic in the early stages, he found himself broken in the fourth game.
Against a server in Muller's blistering form that proved fatal to his first set chances.
Murray still couldn't make an impact on Muller's serve for much of the second set, but he raised his game at the crucial moment with a flawless tie-break that forced a final set.
Bolstered by that escape, Murray's returns fizzed with more power and accuracy and he finally secured his first break of the match in the opening game of the third set — it proved decisive as he comfortably served out the win.
South Africa's Kevin Anderson powered into the semi-finals with a 7-6 (9/7), 7-5 victory against Spain's Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.
Anderson was appearing in the Queen's quarter-finals for the third time in four years and the world number 17 finally made it to the last four after bludgeoning Garcia-Lopez into submission with 18 aces.
Anderson's last four opponent will be French seventh seed Gilles Simon, who fought back from a set down to defeat world number eight Milos Raonic 4-6, 6-3, 7-5.
World number 13 Simon had lost all three of his previous meetings with Raonic, but the 30-year-old booked his first appearance in the Queen's last four on his fifth match point.
Andy Murray moved a step closer to a record-equalling fourth Queen’s Club title as the top seed defeated Fernando Verdasco 7-5, 6-4, while Grigor Dimitrov joined the lengthy list of star casualties.
While defending champion Dimitrov was beaten 6-4, 7-6 (7/5) by Gilles Muller in the second round on Thursday, Murray avoided becoming the latest big name to fall with a second successive straight-sets win at the Wimbledon warm-up event.
Dimitrov’s lacklustre exit against the world number 48 from Luxembourg came hot on the heels of Rafael Nadal’s shock loss to Ukrainian journeyman Alexandr Dolgopolov and French Open champion Stan Wawrinka’s defeat against Kevin Anderson.
Murray had been due to face Dimitrov in the quarter-finals on Friday, so the series of upsets leaves the world number three, who now boasts an impressive 22-5 career record at Queen’s, as the strong favourite to win the title ahead of his meeting with the unheralded Muller.
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The 28-year-old last triumphed at Queen’s in 2013 and if he lifts the giant silver trophy on Sunday he will join Boris Becker, John McEnroe, Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt as the joint record winner of the tournament.
“Fernando is obviously an extremely powerful guy and you don’t have a chance to get into some of the rallies. But he didn’t serve so well which gave me a few opportunities,” Murray said.
“I was happy with the way I moved – it was better than the first match.”
Although Verdasco had pushed Murray to the brink, taking a two-set lead before losing in five in the Wimbledon quarter-finals in 2013, the Scot had won 10 of their 11 previous meetings.
Murray started with authority from the baseline and broke Verdasco in the second game.
A miscued forehand into the net presented the world number 42 with an unexpected break in the seventh game, but Murray remained the more dynamic force and harried the Spaniard in a series of mistakes that cost him the set.
– Utterly demoralised –
Verdasco responded by putting even more force into his groundstrokes in the second set and Murray had to spin a full circle to get back into position after retrieving one rocket before unloading a brilliant winner.
If that didn’t leave Verdasco utterly demoralised, Murray’s act of escapology in the third game surely did the trick as the Scot recovered from 0-40 down to hold serve.
Faced with such formidable defence from Murray, there was a noticable drop in Verdasco’s play and he finally surrendered with three double faults in a dismal and decisive service game late in the second set.
— tennishead (@tennishead) June 18, 2015
Dimitrov’s success at Queen’s 12 months ago and his long association with the event, which gave him a wildcard entry as an unknown teenager, led the world number 11 to claim this week that he felt like he “owned the court” when he played in west London.
But the 24-year-old Bulgarian hadn’t reached a tour-level final since his victory over Feliciano Lopez at Queen’s 12 months ago and this was the latest setback in a frustrating 2015 campaign.
“It’s a tough loss for me,” Dimitrov said. “It’s never easy when you lose your title, but that’s part of the game.
“I’m going to have quite a few days to get ready for Wimbledon and I’m sure I’m going to turn things around.”
Later on Thursday, fourth-seeded Croatian Marin Cilic, the US Open champion, also went out. Cilic lost 6-7 (8/10), 6-2, 6-3 to Serbia’s Viktor Troicki.
John Isner won the battle of the big servers as the American defeated last year’s Queen’s runner-up Feliciano Lopez 7-6 (7/5), 6-7 (9/11), 7-6 (7/4).
Following Cilic’s loss to Troicki today, David Ferrer has clinched the No. 8 seed at Wimbledon.
— Jared Pine (@JaredPine) June 18, 2015
Isner, who famously won the longest match in tennis history against Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010, blasted 36 aces — his best ever effort in a three-set match — to overcome Lopez’s own impressive tally of 29.
The American will face Troikci for a semi-final spot.
Japan's Kei Nishikori reached the Halle grass-court quarter-finals for the second successive year, recording his 36th win of the season in beating Germany's Dustin Brown 7-5, 6-1.
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Second seeded Nishikori will now face Poland's Jerzy Janowicz, who reached his first grass-court quarter-final in two years by beating 2014 runner-up Alejandro Falla 6-2, 5-7, 6-2.
"It was a great match for me. All the important points I played well," said Nishikori.
"I was just waiting for one chance in the first set because I know I was playing well and he was hitting some great shots, there was nothing I could do.
"So, I was just waiting for the moment and at 6-5 I took some risks and I did what I had to do. In the second set, I was more confident and everything was going well."
Andreas Seppi broke a four-match losing streak against fifth seed Tommy Robredo, in their 11th meeting to win 6-2, 6-7 (6/8), 6-3.
France's Gael Monfils also made the last-eight by seeing off Mikhail Kukushkin of Kazakhstan 7-6 (7/1), 6-4 and goes on to face Seppi.