After the fun, Andy Murray gets serious
'Workmanlike' Kazakhstani next as British No 1 gathers momentum at Australian Open
Andy Murray took his tennis to a new and crowd pleasing level to dismantle the challenge of Michaël Llodra 6-4 6-2 6-0 in an Australian Open third-round victory that included so many outstanding rallies that it provided the perfect antidote to a tennis farce which ended with Kazakhstan's Mikhail Kukushkin earning the right to face the British No 1 in the last 16.
Kukushkin, who lost to Murray in three sets in the first round of the Brisbane event which preceded the Open, defeated the French No 14 seed Gael Monfils 6-2 7-5 5-7 1-66-4 in a contest that was so strange it should have featured Borat, yelling support from the players' box. Instead, the vocals were supplied by Kukushkin's wife Anastasia, who is, unusually, also his coach.
Monfils injured his back early in the match, receiving lengthy treatment, but the Frenchman recovered to win two sets before falling in the fifth after a bizarre incident affected his concentration. Serving to save the match, an oversized tennis ball suddenly appeared, kicked by a spectator from outside the court. The point was replayed but Monfils double-faulted, allowing Kukushkin, the world No 92, to progress.
Murray's passage was more predictable in a game which saw spectators acknowledging two wonderful tennis players and a series of rallies that defied belief. Llodra, one of the world's best doubles players, was always going to bring something unusual to the party, relying on serve and volley to pressure opponents into mistakes. But Murray relishes the sight of an opponent crowding the net, unleashing a barrage of passing shots delivered with unrelenting ferocity and skill.
The Frenchman did his best to stretch Murray to the limit and must have come close to a world record for the number of "between the legs" shots attempted. One of his most successful came at the conclusion of the second set. It left Murray to return with racket in front of his face as he fell backwards. This sent an already delighted crowd into raptures.
Murray did not have it all his own way with Llodra winning one exquisite point by returning the ball, low and around the net, using the gap between the post and the umpire's chair. There were smiles from the players and an air of sportsmanship that was in total contrast to the Monfils/Kukushkin match.
There was even a "pretend" head butt from Llodra after Murray had hit him from close range with the ball as they exchanged volleys at the net.
Murray admitted it was highly unusual to have so much "fun" in a Grand Slam match but is wary of the threat posed by his next opponent.
"When I played him in Brisbane, he was unbelievable the first six games. He hardly missed a ball. He was hitting the ball huge, going pretty much down the line on every shot and cleaning lines. If you are laughing and joking around and you are two sets up, then not everyone takes that well. Tonight, because he was having a bit of fun then I am open to that, although most of the time you have to get your game face on. I am 99 per cent sure that in the next round there won't be many laughs and joking around because Kukushkin is very workmanlike and you just have to do a job.
"I am not getting ahead of myself but I know my game is in the right place and you don't give out any trophies in the third round."
Kukushkin, who switched from being Russian nearly four years ago to benefit from the financial help of the Kazakh federation, admits that many people do not believe his wife coaches him. "Mostly, it's people outside because they think 'it's wife – what she can do for me?' They don't believe it. But I believe and I think for me, it's the most important thing," he said. "It is a perfect relationship and she will help me tactically prepare for Andy because my wife knows my game like no one else."
As things stand Murray is on course to meet Novak Djokovic in Thursday's semi-finals. The defending champion eased into the last 16 with a simple 6-0 6-1 6-1 win over Nicolas Mahut, of France and warned, "I feel I am playing the best tennis of my career," which should worry everyone as he currently holds three of the four Slam titles after a stunning 2011.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the likely quarter-final obstacle for Murray, beat Portugal's Frederico Gil 6-2 6-2 6-2, while 17th seed Richard Gasquet knocked out seventh seed Janko Tipsarevic 6-3 6-3 6-1.
Rising Ivanovic benefits from Sears know-how
Ana Ivanovic, the former French Open champion, credits the British coach Nigel Sears for helping her set up an Australian Open fourth-round clash with Petra Kvitova, the Wimbledon champion. Ivanovic convinced Sears to leave the Lawn Tennis Association, where he was head of women's tennis, during Wimbledon to work on the Serbian's faltering game that had seen her drop down the rankings. The former World No 1 is now back at No22 and has the game and experience to go higher if Sears can sort out her serve and forehand.
These are the areas Ivanovic is concerned about following her 6-3 6-4 win over America's Vania King in Melbourne. "Normally I had a big team of people around me but this time it was just Nigel," the 24-year-old said. "I had physio working with me in build up to the Open. I had lots of little injuries, pains and niggles the last couple years and really wanted to get rid of them.
"I did a lot of my fitness work on the court with Nigel and that's really paying off. I was really excited after Wimbledon when we sort of started working together. Pre-season, we sat down and set goals and I feel I can absorb a lot of his teachings. One of the big areas was the serve and it has also improved my forehand."
Kvitova went through after Maria Kirilenko retired injured from their match at 6-0 1-0 down while fourth seed Maria Sharapova had to work harder for her fourth round place than the 6-1 6-2 scoreline from her win over Angelique Kerber suggests. Seventh seed Vera Zvonareva lost to fellow Russian Ekaterina Makarova, Serena Williams dismissed Greta Arn 6-1 6-1.
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