Here is a man who had never won a tournament on the dirt before the 2015 season. He took two singles titles on clay last season, and this year he looked even more self assured on that surface, reaching the final of Madrid with a win over Rafael Nadal before losing a closely contested final with Novak Djokovic, then toppling the Serbian to claim the crown in Rome. And so he arrived in Paris with as much confidence as he has ever had in his chances of succeeding at the most important slow court tournament of them all.
And yet, despite the obvious boost he got from his scintillating form en route to Roland Garros, he has had an exceedingly difficult path into the semifinals. It all started with his first round clash against 37-year-old qualifier Radek Stepanek, an almost impossibly highly charged individual who seems to have the energy and outlook of a teenager. Stepanek came at Murray ferociously with his unconventional attacking game, and sparred surprisingly well with his adversary from the backcourt as well, tagging his shots with excellent depth off both sides, striking the ball cleanly with his flat strokes.
Stepanek nearly ushered Murray out of this tournament, winning the first two sets. Murray rallied, but the match was halted in the fourth set. The following day, Murray took it swiftly into a fifth. Twice when he served to stay in the contest at 4-5, Murray was two points away from elimination, but he was obstinate, composed and resilient. Murray not only held his serve in that tenth game of the final set, but he even more admirably refused to lose his nerve. He came through to beat Stepanek 3-6, 3-6, 6-0, 6-3, 7-5. In the second round, Murray was confronted by another uncommon opponent. He met the Frenchman Mathias Bourgue, and the wildcard was spontaneously brilliant in building a two sets to one lead after Murray had not only won the first set, but also advanced to 2-0 in the second.
Bourgue, however, had nothing left after the third set. He had never played a match of this consequence, and knew not how to proceed under such circumstances. Murray exploited his vast experience and his remarkable fitness to get out of that precarious corner, winning 6-2, 2-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3. After surviving those consecutive five set confrontations, Murray accounted for two of the game’s biggest and best servers in the next two rounds, ousting Ivo Karlovic and John Isner in straight set appointments.
Those victories set the stage for the No. 2 seed’s duel today against the gifted yet sometimes brittle Frenchman Richard Gasquet. Gasquet will turn 30 on June 18, and over the last three years he has produced some of the most inspired tennis of his career. In both 2013 and 2015, Gasquet ended the year among the top ten in the world. He made it to the penultimate round of the 2013 U.S. Open before bowing out against eventual champion Nadal. Last year, he upended French Open champion Stan Wawrinka in five sparkling sets to move into the semifinals of Wimbledon, losing there to Djokovic two days before the Serbian collected a third title on the fabled Centre Court.
Gasquet was determined to find his place in a major semifinal here in Paris. In twelve previous appearances at Roland Garros, he had never been beyond the fourth round. But this time around, he put on one good show after another on his way to his first quarterfinal on the red clay of Roland Garros. The No. 9 seed cut down the dangerous Nick Kyrgios (the No. 17 seed) in the third round, and then knocked out No. 5 seed Kei Nishikori in a four set, round of 16 assignment.
For two sets against Murray, Gasquet had the home crowd gasping at his supreme shotmaking skills. His one-handed backhand is right up there among the best in the sport. He can’t quite match the brute force strength of Stan Wawrinka, but Gasquet’s propensity to go crosscourt or down the line, to create astoundingly acute angles and to open up the court inventively off that side, is second to none. Over the last few years, he has shored up his forehand very impressively, and has sought to beef up his serve slightly also. To put it more succinctly, he is a better player than he has ever been before, and Murray realized he was in for a stern struggle.
Nevertheless, Murray was strategically sound and utterly concentrated in the early stages. He was confounding Gasquet with a barrage of drop shots, breaking up the Frenchman’s rhythm, forcing Gasquet to leave the comfort zone of the backcourt and move forward not of his own choosing. Murray gained the first break of the match for 2-0 on a Gasquet double fault, and then held at love for 3-0, implementing the drop shot effectively to win the first two points of that game.
Gasquet got his teeth into the battle by holding for 1-3 and again for 2-4, but Murray was outplaying him decidedly. Yet Gasquet remained quietly confident and resolute. After Murray got to 5-2, Gasquet held for 3-5 at 15 with a scorching backhand winner. When Murray served for the set in the ninth game, the British competitor went to 30-30, but netted a forehand drop shot there badly. A piercing first serve took Murray back to deuce, but Gasquet lured his adversary into an error to create a break point opportunity.
That point was a gem. Murray employed the drop shot, and Gasquet chased it down. Murray then lofted a terrific lob over the Frenchman, but Gasquet ran that down beautifully as well, throwing up a gorgeous lob himself to get back in the point. Murray had to let it bounce and he was in neutral territory again. Murray would lose the point on an errant forehand born of frustration. The French crowd erupted. Gasquet, much to his and the audience’s delight, was back on serve at 4-5.
But he was soon down 0-30 in the tenth game. He rolled to 40-30, lost the next point, but then retaliated with a magnificent backhand down the line winner off a weak return from Murray. A punishing forehand down the line lifted Gasquet to 5-5, encouraging the crowd to raise the level of their appreciation even more. Serving at 5-5, 30-40, Murray miss-hit his second serve wide, double faulting that critical game away.
Gasquet was roaring now, anxious and determined to make good on his comeback as he served for the set at 6-5. A backhand down the line drop shot winner gave him 40-15, with two set points at his disposal.But Murray was not retreating from this challenge. He saved the first set point with an angled forehand crosscourt that drew an error from the Frenchman, and then erased the second with a backhand crosscourt drop shot that provoked another mistake from Gasquet.
Shaken now, Gasquet double faulted to give Murray a break point, but the Frenchman went on the attack, inducing a passing shot error from his adversary. Gasquet garnered a third set point, scampering forward with alacrity to set up an overhead winner. But Murray released a trademark forehand passing shot winner crosscourt. Murray then earned a second break point, but Gasquet once more elected to apply pressure. His approach shot was so deep that Murray netted a two-handed backhand passing shot.
It was deuce for the fourth time, and then Murray made it to break point for the third time, only to net a backhand drop shot, creating a fifth deuce in this enormously compelling game. Gasquet steadied himself here, approaching the net assertively, drawing a passing shot error from Murray with a solid smash. On his fourth set point, Gasquet secured the set as Murray netted a flat backhand crosscourt. It had taken no fewer than 65 demanding minutes for the outcome of that opening set to be settled, and Gasquet had rallied with temerity from 2-5 down to sweep five games in a row.
Murray was surely discombobulated, aggravated by his inability to close out that set, unhappy to be behind after putting forth such a concerted effort. After holding for 1-0 in the second set, Murray had Gasquet down 15-40 in the second game, but did not convert. In the third game, Murray found himself in the same predicament, behind 15-40, in danger of allowing Gasquet to lengthen his lead and feed off the sentiments of a crowd almost entirely in his corner.
But Murray held on steadfastly for 2-1. Both players held until the sixth game, when Gasquet double faulted into a 15-40 deficit. Murray took the next point with a delightfully carved backhand drop shot winner, and there he was again in command, leading 4-2 in the pivotal second set. He surged to 5-2 with an impeccably measured backhand crosscourt winner. This time, it seemed certain that Murray would not falter with the set seemingly under his control.
But Gasquet was determined to make lightening strike twice. He held at love for 3-5, serving an ace down the T for 40-0 in that uplifting game. Serving for the set in the ninth game, Murray rallied from 0-30 to 30-30, but was stymied by a forehand crosscourt winner driven forcefully by Gasquet, who went cleverly behind the British player to make that placement. Murray saved a break point to reach deuce, but inexplicably missed a routine forehand into the net, enabling Gasquet to earn a second break point. This one he took. The Frenchman jumped on a backhand down the line from Murray and sent it sizzling crosscourt off his own forehand side. Murray never had a chance.
Gasquet had broken back for 4-5. He then held for 5-5 from deuce with a winning forehand volley down the line and a thundering backhand down the line that provoked a miss-hit from Murray. In the eleventh game, Murray was down 0-30 but collected three points in a row for 40-30, taking the last of those with an ace down the T at 209 kilometers. Gasquet knotted the score at deuce, but Murray was not wavering, establishing a 6-5 lead with a service winner and an excellent overhead.
Gasquet had to fight hard in another difficult service game, but he held on for 6-6 with gumption to set up a crucial tie-break. When Murray double faulted to trail 1-3 in that sequence, the audience seemed to sense the beginning of the end. Murray, however, was not obliging. He proceeded to produce his finest clutch tennis of the match, collecting six consecutive points to take that tie-break completely away from an opponent who never quite understood what had happened.
Here is what did happen: Murray served an ace for 2-3, drew level at 3-3 with a winning forehand passing shot made easy by an unlucky let-cord approach shot from Gasquet, and moved ahead 4-3 by taking his backhand return early and rushing the Frenchman into a mistake. Another ace from Murray out wide in the ad court put him ahead 5-3, and soon it was 6-3 as Murray came forward behind a superb approach and easily put away a forehand volley. Up triple set point, Murray used his drop shot intelligently again, making Gasquet come forward awkwardly. Then Murray rolled a forehand passing shot up the line for a winner. In taking those six critical points in a row to reach one set all, Murray had released two aces and three outright winners, provoking an error from Gasquet once. He could have been no better than that when it really counted.
Thereafter, the outcome was seldom if ever in doubt. Gasquet was deflated mentally and physically he was spent. His footwork largely disappeared. His shotmaking suffered severely as a result. Murray had no trouble whatsoever moving Gasquet from side to side across the last two sets, extracting errors at will, making his opponent look like an old man. Gasquet was ahead 40-30 in the opening game of the third set but Murray halted him there with a spectacular forehand passing shot, and eventually the British player got the immediate break for 1-0.
Murray knew full well he was in charge now, holding at 30 for 2-0, breaking Gasquet again for 3-0 with consistently fine returns. He held at 30 for 4-0, broke Gasquet in a long game for 5-0, and took the set at love without conceding a point on his serve in the sixth game. The first set had lasted 65 exhausting minutes. The second set was similarly taxing for both players and it was four minutes longer. But that third set took a mere 27 minutes. Gasquet held on for 1-0 in the fourth set but lost the next five games. Murray pulled away to win 5-7, 7-6 (3), 6-0, 6-2.
For the third time in a remarkable tournament, Murray had rescued himself from very dangerous territory. Now he will meet Wawrinka in what could be a fascinating semifinal. Murray leads in their series 8-7, but he has lost his last three head to head contests against the overpowering ball striker from Switzerland. At the majors, Wawrinka has won two of three battles with Murray at the U.S. Open, while Murray won their lone meeting at Wimbledon back in 2009; that round of 16 battle went five sets.
Yet they have not clashed anywhere since the ATP World Tour Finals last November, when Wawrinka was a straight set victor. I don’t put too much stock in that result because Murray had the Davis Cup final against Belgium on his mind, and he played poorly for the most part in London.
Murray needed three hours and 24 minutes to stop Gasquet, but that was a bargain. He could have been made to play for at least an hour longer if Gasquet had not faded so thoroughly those last couple of sets. I believe the Murray-Wawrinka semifinal has the makings of a five set classic. Wawrinka has rounded into top of the line form after being pushed to five sets by Lukas Rosol in the first round. He is confident and unafraid about defending his title.
The fact remains that Murray is on a crusade here. He believes on balance he is a better player than Wawrinka. We will find out. It will be hard fought and awfully close. Ultimately, I see the scales tipping narrowly in Murray’s favor, primarily because of his return of serve. Win or lose, though, Andy Murray can regard this tournament and his string of victories as a triumph, and a springboard toward a possible second Wimbledon singles title in July.