Better, much better. Nearly three months after he last took a set, let alone a match, Andy Murray finally rediscovered his winning touch yesterday. The 23-year-old Scot beat Radek Stepanek 6-1, 6-4 in the second round of the Monte Carlo Masters in such emphatic fashion that it was hard to believe he had lost his previous four matches so badly.
If the world No 4 felt any nerves after a run which had ended with two successive defeats against players ranked outside the world's top 100, they were not apparent in his opening match of the clay-court season. Settling immediately on the surface which he admits can be his greatest challenge, Murray cruised to a third-round meeting today with France's Gilles Simon in confident fashion.
While Stepanek himself has not been in the best of form – the 32-year-old Czech has not won two matches in a row since the first week of the year – he is not short of experience or ability. Murray, however, rarely looked in trouble. The Scot quickly played himself into the match and was soon finding a good balance between defence and attack. Murray moved smoothly around the court and after some early caution started sliding into his shots with aplomb.
Stepanek held on to win his opening service game, but from that point onwards Murray took command, winning 10 of the next 11 games. The world No 4 won 18 of the last 22 points in the first set, in which he made just one unforced error.
Although he suffered a minor blip in the second set, when he lost three games in a row after taking a 4-1 lead, Murray soon resumed control. He broke Stepanek for the fifth time to secure victory after an hour and a half when he forced the world No 70 into a forehand error on his first match point.
"I played well," a satisfied Murray said afterwards. "I hit the ball big from the beginning of the match. For my first match on clay that was perfect."
Simon, who enjoyed a 6-3, 6-4 win over Spain's Albert Montanes, beat Murray in their first meeting four years ago, but has not won a set in their four subsequent meetings. "He's definitely a challenge," Murray said of the world No 24. "He's a very good player. I've had a lot of good matches with him. We always have long rallies and he doesn't make many mistakes."
Rafael Nadal, who is attempting to win the Monte Carlo title for a record seventh year in succession, also opened up in impressive fashion, beating Finland's Jarkko Nieminen 6-2, 6-2. When the world No 1 took the first eight points without reply a whitewash seemed on the cards, but Nieminen did eventually make a match of it.
The Spaniard, who faces a tricky third-round match with France's Richard Gasquet, said his pipe-opener was satisfactory but added: "I need a few more days. I have to play more aggressive on the backhand, I have to move better and I have to have a few less mistakes."