When Andy Murray won his first three rounds here at the Australian Open last week without dropping a set a cynic might have suggested that he had yet to meet an opponent capable of providing a serious test.
Today, however, the 23-year-old Scot faced an opponent who is ranked No 11 in the world and enjoyed the best season of his career last year. The result was the same, nevertheless, as Murray accelerated into the quarter-finals with a hugely impressive 6-3, 6-1, 6-1 victory over Austria’s Jurgen Melzer.
Murray, who has lost only 22 games in his first four matches, was in superb form. He served well, hit his backhand with his usual conviction and also found a lovely rhythm on his forehand, which can be his weaker side. The world No 5, who reached the final here last year, swept his Austrian opponent off the court in just an hour and 44 minutes. He now plays Alexandr Dolgopolov, who beat Robin Soderling, the world No 4, 1-6, 6-3, 6-1, 4-6, 6-2.
Dolgopolov, a 22-year-old Ukrainian ranked No 46 in the world, is through to the last eight of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time. Murray won their only previous meeting in a Davis Cup tie on clay in Odessa five years ago.
Perhaps Murray was spurred on by the thought that if he won quickly enough he might finish in time to go and see his fellow countryman, Billy Connolly, up the road at the State Theatre later in the day. The comedian, who is a big tennis fan, accepted Murray’s invitation to join his entourage in their courtside box and was treated to a command performance.
At four months short of his 30th birthday, Melzer was the oldest player left in the men’s draw. The former junior Wimbledon champion broke into the world’s top 100 in 2003, but for several years he did not make any notable progress. An aggressive left-hander with good volleys, he was regarded as a hit-and-miss merchant who made too many mistakes.
Last year proved to be his breakthrough season as he finally found real consistency. The Austrian played in his first Grand Slam semi-final at the French Open and reached a career-high No 6 in the world rankings in October. He has since slipped to No 11 but should be back in the top 10 next week.
Yesterday saw a return of the old erratic Melzer, although that was largely down to Murray’s clever play. The world No 5, retrieving shots with all his usual athleticism, kept forcing his opponent to hit the extra ball, forcing Melzer into a steady stream of errors. Murray, nevertheless, did much more than merely counter-punch, which was demonstrated by the fact that he hit 30 winners to Melzer’s 21.
The match was played in bright sunshine on the main show court, but there was a coolness in the air which both players probably appreciated. Despite opening with a double fault, Murray was soon into his stride. At 2-1 he set up a break point with a backhand cross-court winner and converted it when he enticed Melzer into a backhand error. The Austrian broke back immediately, but in the following game Murray broke again, this time to love, and the Scot went on to serve out for the set.
Yet another break of serve in the opening game of the second set underlined Murray’s superiority. He saved four break points in the next game and made two further breaks to take the set. By the time Melzer dropped his serve in the fourth game of the third set the contest was effectively over. For good measure Murray broke the Austrian for the seventh time two games later before serving out for the match with an ace.
“I was expecting a really tough match,” Murray admitted afterwards in a courtside interview with Jim Courier. “He had a great year on the tour last year. I hit the ball really well from the start of the match.” Asked to assess his own form, Murray said: “I don’t want to get carried away. I’ve never won one of these things before.”
Courier pointed out that Murray’s mother, Judy, had watched the match after missing his previous victory. “My brother was playing doubles at the same time and obviously I’m not the favourite son,” Murray joked. “I got bumped for that one. My brother lost, so she was able to come today.”
Soderling had not dropped a set in his first three matches and appeared to be coasting to another routine victory when he took the first set against Dolgopolov in just 21 minutes. However, the Ukrainian quickly upped his game and took the next two sets as Soderling’s level dipped.
The Swede had difficult coping with his opponent’s frequent changes of pace. When on the defensive Dolgopolov frequently hits sliced forehands, taking the pace off the ball, but he also has the ability to turn on the power at the flick of a switch. Hurling himself into his driven forehands, he often had Soderling scrambling to get the ball back. With a big serve that Soderling found hard to read – Dolgopolov hit 11 aces to the Swede’s six in the match – the underdog soon took command, although the match went into a deciding set.
When Soderling served at 1-2 in the fifth set Dolgopolov broke serve with a point that typified the match. In response to Soderling’s booming forehands, Dolgopolov hit a series of sliced returns from both flanks, interspersed with the occasional driven shot of his own. Soderling, desperate to finish the point, eventually went for one big hit too many and put a forehand beyond the baseline.
At 5-2 Dolgopolov broke again to take the match. Soderling saved three match points but on the fourth, which Dolgopolov had set up with a cracking forehand return winner down the line, the Swede dumped a forehand in the net. . The final statistics told their own story. Dolgopolov hit 50 winners to Soderling’s 34 and made only 23 unforced errors compared with his opponent’s 51.
Murray will not underestimate his next opponent. “I’ve known him for quite a while,” he said. “I played him in the Davis Cup when we were both really young. He has an unorthodox game and he’s really talented.”