It was not the smooth passage he would have liked, but Andy Murray eventually negotiated a successful course through his second match at the US Open here last night. The 21-year-old Scot overcame an alarming dip in form in the second set to beat Michael Llodra 6-4, 1-6, 7-5, 7-6 after two and a half hours to earn a third-round meeting with Austria's Jurgen Melzer.
Beating Llodra, the world No 38, was never going to be straightforward, but at times Murray made heavy weather of it, playing too negatively and enabling the 28-year-old Frenchman to dominate at the net. While 13 unforced errors (compared with Llodra's 46) underlined the British No 1's consistency, there were times when his cautious approach handed his opponent the initiative.
Llodra, who is enjoying the best year of his career, provides a challenge different to almost anyone else in the men's game. An excellent doubles player with a huge serve, he routinely serves and volleys and attacks the net at every opportunity. He played chip-and-charge on Murray's second serve throughout, which paid a rich dividend in the second set in particular. Being a left-hander only complicated the challenge he offered.
Nevertheless, everything had seemed straightforward for Murray during a low-key first set. From the moment the world No 6 broke serve in the third game with a series of splendid returns he never looked in trouble as errors flowed freely from Llodra's racket.
The problem came when the Frenchman upped his game in the second set and cut out his mistakes. Charging forward and attacking Murray's second serve mercilessly, he broke the Scot in the second and sixth games.
You sense that Murray sometimes needs an extra spark or challenge to lift him, particularly if the crowd are subdued, as they were on Grandstand Court for most of the afternoon. A series of disputed calls, with one line judge in particular appearing to have trouble in the fierce sunshine, did the job. While Llodra became distracted – the Frenchman marched down the court during one changeover to offer the official in question a wake-up drink from his water bottle – the interruptions seemed to put fire into Murray's game.
There were no breaks in the third set until Llodra served at 5-6. The Frenchman gifted the first two points with a double fault and a poor backhand, but he could do nothing about the next two as Murray took the set thanks to two crunching returns of serve.
Breaks of serve were exchanged at the start and middle of the fourth set before Murray won a tie-break in which nine of the 16 points went against serve. Llodra had two set points, but when serving at 7-6 he made two horrendous mistakes, netting a simple forehand and a stop volley before Murray sealed victory with a simple put-away behind a backhand approach.
"I was very happy with the match," Murray said afterwards. "I thought I hit the ball from the back of the court very well. I didn't feel like I was making many mistakes from the baseline and I didn't make too many unforced errors. For a huge part of the match it was very tricky for me to serve from the end where the tough calls were. The sun is right in your eyes. He's a really tough guy to play against and I was happy I won in four sets.
"He serves so well. When you find it hard to break someone and they're coming in all the time against you, then it makes it tricky. But I started to return well towards the end of the third set and I obviously broke him twice in the fourth. That was the difference."
Murray's next match will be a foretaste of Davis Cup battles to come at Wimbledon next month, when Britain face Austria. Melzer reached the third round with a convincing 6-0, 6-2, 6-2 victory over Jiri Vanek, of the Czech Republic.
Stanislas Wawrinka, who is seeded to meet Murray in the fourth round, beat Wayne Odesnik, of the United States, 6-4, 7-6, 6-2, while David Ferrer had to come from a set down before beating Germany's Andreas Beck 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 7-6.
Murray's brother, Jamie, and his partner, Max Mirnyi, went out in the first round of the doubles, losing 7-6, 7-6 to Slovakia's Michal Mertinak and Croatia's Lovro Zvoko.