When an underdog meets a big dog, there are two scenarios. He lets the favourite run him ragged, content that he’s achieved what he needed to just by getting there. It doesn’t matter to him that he gets crushed. Or, he takes it to his superior, throws everything at him in the belief that he might win, and makes a match of it in the process.
Stephane Robert, the 33-year-old lucky loser from Montargis in France, was both of those on Monday afternoon, Andy Murray winning their fourth round match 6-1 6-2 6-7(6) 6-2, but needing six match points and breaking a racquet to do so.
For the first two sets of their scuffle on Hisense Arena, Murray scorched around the court so quickly that the gathering fans barely had time to get seated. Reportedly free of the stiffness and soreness which had been bothering him for over 18 months, Murray is playing like a man making up for lost time, a man who has missed being among the mayhem, who can’t wait to get out and play.
He seems to have greater rip and twist on his groundstrokes since the surgery, firing down 48 winners, statistics that the biggest of hitters would be proud of.
He didn’t need to run hell for leather against Robert, the 33-year-old lucky loser, the first man ever to play in the fourth round of a Grand Slam having lost in qualifying and the world No.119. But Murray played every point like it mattered. Up 6-1 and 0-30 on Robert’s serve, for example, he almost clattered his racquet into his shoe, just because he approached the net when perhaps he shouldn’t have. It seemed a little unnecessary.
But Murray was right to be wary. Because somehow, on the verge of victory, leading two sets and 5-4, serving for the match, the Frenchman broke him as Murray put in a loose game. And then somehow, saving four match points in the process, Robert won the tie-break and the set.
This time, having dropped his first set of the tournament, Murray didn’t hold back, sending his ill-fated racquet to meet the floor as he sat down on the changeover.
“Sometimes it's necessary, you know,” Murray said with a smile. “In the tiebreak I didn't lose concentration. I just missed a couple of shots, one just wide on a forehand I hit clean, just missed. My racquet bit the dust. Unfortunate for it.”
It didn’t change the outcome of the match. Murray made up for his brief lapse in concentration with a little extra crunch, and allowed Robert only two games in the fourth.
“He’s a fun guy to watch, but he’s not fun to play against,” Murray told the Hisense Arena crowd as Robert enjoyed his rockstar moment, signing autographs for the duration of Murray’s post-match interview.
Murray will reflect on where the match could have been better, and perhaps conclude that 47 unforced errors was probably a little too much, 62 per cent first serves and seven out of 14 break points perhaps a little too little. But only fractionally.
Regardless of whether he could have saved himself an extra half an hour on court, the important thing is that he is through to his 18th Grand Slam singles quarter-final, and his 12th in a row. Not too shabby for a man playing his second tournament back from surgery.
“I dominated 95 per cent of the match, and for 15 minutes didn't close the match out. I was one point away from being in here and that being in here after a great performance to playing 15 minutes not perfect,” Murray said.
“But still created chances, even when I wasn't playing so well at the end of that third set. And then, yeah, the fourth set was fairly comfortable. You know, I lost my serve once. I think he only had breakpoint on my serve in two games in the match possibly.
“So it was pretty good for the most part.”
Now though, the tests get tougher. With Roger Federer on the other side of the Rod Laver Arena net on Wednesday, Murray will not be able to afford mind wobbles or missed opportunities. But he is keeping his expectations under wraps.
“I need to play a great match in the next match,” Murray said. “If I strike the ball like I did for the first couple sets today, or even the first two-and-a-half sets today, I'll give myself an opportunity in the match.
“But I don't know if I've been adequately tested or not. It's tough to say.
“I said at the start of the tournament, I can't honestly say my expectations are as high as if I'd been playing for the last four months. It's been a good effort so far to get to the quarterfinals of a slam this soon after back surgery.
“So I'm happy with that. But, you know, I'm not far away from, you know, winning the event. Anyone that's in the quarters is close. I just look forward to that match and hopefully play a good one.”