Madrid Masters: Andy Murray shows the strain as niggles resurface on clay

British number one reaches last-16 with gruelling 7-6, 7-6 victory over Florian Mayer

The wearied look on his face and the occasions when he struggled to catch his breath suggested that Andy Murray would have preferred a more straightforward win, but the Scot’s gruelling 7-6, 7-6 victory over Florian Mayer in his opening match at the Madrid Masters could stand him in good stead in the weeks ahead.

With the start of the French Open only 18 days away, Murray needs as much matchplay as possible, particularly after his early exit from his only other clay-court tournament this year in Monte Carlo and a recent bout of sickness. Mayer, the world No 26, pushed Murray hard before succumbing after two hours and four minutes.

Clay is always Murray’s most challenging surface and the world No 3 revealed that he had made himself ill by working too hard during practice in Monte Carlo with his coach, Ivan Lendl, following the tournament there.

“I got sick afterwards and didn’t hit for four or five days,” Murray admitted after securing victory over Mayer. “I was probably doing a little bit too much on the court. I worked extremely hard and I was very tired after that.”

He added: “I’ve had some solid  results on clay in the past but it always takes me time to get used to it. I needed to spend a lot of time on the practice court.

“I practised with [Marin] Cilic and [Alexandr] Dolgopolov in Monte Carlo, so it was good preparation. I got here on Wednesday night and I’ve played really well in practice this week. I played with a lot of good players. I practised with [Thomas] Berdych, Rafa [Nadal], [Grigor] Dimitrov and played very well. I just need to get used to playing matches again. Hopefully, I’ll play better with each match.”

Mayer, whose unorthodox style always makes him a tricky opponent, came into the match with eight clay-court wins already under his belt this year. Murray found the 29-year-old German’s serve particularly hard to read, but in other respects had good reason to feel pleased with his performance. He moved well, despite occasional grimaces when he appeared to tweak his back or left hip, and struck the ball confidently throughout.

Murray had looked comfortable for most of the first set, but despite making regular inroads into Mayer’s service games he was unable to complete the breakthrough. The first tie-break developed into a dogfight, with Mayer twice recovering from early mini-breaks and then forcing Murray to save five set points. At the end, however, Murray upped the tempo to scrape home 13-11.

The effort, nevertheless, appeared to take its toll on Murray. “I was struggling – I think both of us were – at the end of the first set,” the Scot said afterwards. “There were so many long points.”

Murray went 3-0 down at the start of the second set, dropping his serve to love with a double-fault. He quickly cancelled out the break, however, and went on to dominate the second tie-break, taking it 7-3 with a winning backhand pass. It was the 400th victory of Murray’s career. “Four hundred is a lot of matches,” he said. “Not too many guys have got over 500 wins. I’ll try to reach that next.”

The win earns a third-round meeting tomorrow with Gilles Simon, who has lost his last 10 meetings with Murray. Simon booked his place in the last 16 by beating a fellow Frenchman, Jérémy Chardy, 6-4, 7-6.

Whatever Murray achieves this week, he will reclaim the No 2 position in the world rankings if Roger Federer fails to defend his title successfully. The 31-year-old Swiss has not played a tournament for two months and made his first clay-court appearance of the year, beating Radek Stepanek 6-3, 6-3. The Czech, who underwent neck surgery in January, has now lost 17 sets in succession against Federer. “I didn’t think I played incredible, but that’s not what I was expecting myself to do here,” Federer said afterwards. “Overall, I’m very happy, because he has caused me difficulties in the past. Today that wasn’t the case and I thought I was pretty much in control.”

Serena Williams, who is defending the women’s title, had too much power for Spain’s Lourdes Dominguez Lino, winning 6-2, 7-5. She will now play France’s Kristina Mladenovic or Russia’s Maria Kirilenko for a place in the quarter-finals.A

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