After a first-round scare against Robin Haase, it looked like Andy Murray may be setting up for another Grand Slam disappointment. His last two matches have turned that narrative on its head.
Murray looked excellent for his second straight match on Saturday, besting Andrey Kuznetsov 6-1, 7-5, 4-6, 6-2 to earn a fourth-round berth at the 2014 U.S. Open. The Scot will play either ninth-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Pablo Carreno Busta, whose third-round match is scheduled for later Saturday.
Looking steady from the outset, Murray overwhelmed Kuznetsov with a series of hard charges to the net and well-placed returns. He won 29-of-33 points when coming to the net, including a stretch of 11 straight during the first set.
Struggling with injuries and ineffectiveness for most of the past year, Murray continued to look in full health before the Flushing Meadows crowd. He moved well and seemed in good spirits, overcoming even momentary uncertainties with ease.
When Kuznetsov was able to battle back and tie the second set with a break, Murray came back and got one of his own to avoid the tiebreak. When Kuznetsov grabbed two breaks to take a surprising win in the third set, Murray seemed unfazed in the fourth.
It was the type of performance that's been rare for Murray as he's struggled to regain his status among the world's best. Despite advancing to at least the quarterfinals in the year's first three Slams, 2014 has been a year mired with frustration. Murray is yet to win an individual tournament during the calendar year, a streak that's helped drop him to No. 9 in the world.
The first set saw Murray at his best since his last win at Wimbledon. He broke Kuznetsov's first serve, kept a steady pace on his service points and largely avoided mistakes. Murray had only fix unforced errors in the seven-game set, half of total winners.
Kuznetsov, playing in his first third-round match at the U.S. Open, seemed noticeably on edge. He fell behind on a series of unforced errors and mental mistakes, allowing Murray to crash the net and play the aggressor. The young Russian managed only five winners in the entire set against a dozen unforced errors.
While Kuznetsov got into a much better rhythm as the match went along, the first set set the tone for the entire afternoon. Already a considerable underdog, Kuznetsov spent the rest of the rest of the match scrambling as Murray held on.
The second and third sets saw Murray make a series of uncharacteristic mistakes. His first-serve percentage went from 70 in the first set down to about half. He allowed Kuznetsov to force the fourth set by double faulting three times and racking up dozen unforced errors.
On the other side, Kuznetsov settled down to take the momentum. His first serves went in 72 percent of the time and he made only nine unforced errors during the set, which saw him break Murray twice. Going into the fourth set, it was beginning to look like Kuznetsov might force his second straight five-set match.
It wasn't to be.
Murray was far from at his best during the closing set, but he took advantage of what seemed to be an imploding Kuznetsov. The unseeded Russian returned to first-set form, sending mishits flying to the tune of 15 unforced errors. Murray made nine unforced errors of his own and continued his service failures, but advanced simply by making fewer mistakes than his opponent.
As Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times noted, the outcome was typically ugly:
Going to an extra set was also a decent test for Murray's fitness. In his first-round win over Haase, Murray was bothered by cramps as the match went along. Luckily, those problems seem to be a thing of the past thanks to some hydration changes.
“I have changed a few things, not so much what I’m eating but what I’m drinking,” Murray told reporters this week. “I’m making sure I have enough fluids down me and take a bit more salt to see if that helps. The conditions are tough and you need to make sure you are on top of everything before matches."
For all the rightful encouragement Murray will receive for the win, the difficulty of his U.S. Open experience is about to rise considerably. Tsonga, the heavy favorite against Busta, defeated Murray in two of their last three head-to-head matches. The two played an excellent three-set match in Toronto earlier this month, with Tsonga breaking Murray late to advance.
Should he get past Tsonga/Busta, Murray will almost certainly be facing Novak Djokovic. The top-seeded Serb has not dropped a set thus far, defeating Sam Querrey 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 earlier Saturday afternoon. Djokovic has made the U.S. Open final each of the last four years.
Of course, Murray is one of the reasons Djokovic has only one win in those four tries. Murray earned his first Grand Slam title in Flushing, defeating his top-ranked foe in a five-set thriller. If there's any reason for encouragement, it begins there. With one more match before a potential head-to-head with Djokovic, Murray needs to work on his game to ensure the encouragement doesn't end there.
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