Murray gets his grass game going after stuttering start

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The Independent Online

Andy Murray's grass-court season is under way after the world No 4 won his opening match here at the Aegon Championships yesterday, beating Belgium's Xavier Malisse 6-3, 5-7, 6-3. In cool and tricky conditions Murray was happy to come through his first challenge unscathed after the ankle injury he suffered at the French Open 12 days ago.

The tennis, in truth, was not dissimilar to the weather. The west London sky was overcast, with only occasional sunny intervals, and the speed of the court did not appear much different from the Roland Garros clay last week. But it was, as ever, a very different game, with the ball keeping low and skidding off the lush surface.

Murray played conservatively, spending most of his time on the baseline and finding a steady rhythm on his ground shots. He served well enough, with 12 aces, but followed his serve into the net only occasionally.

Malisse, 30, was a Wimbledon semi-finalist nine years ago but the world No 40 has never lived up to his early potential. He has not had the best of luck with injuries but often fails to make the best use of his talent. A fine shot-maker, the Belgian can be too flashy for his own good, sometimes attempting unnecessarily risky shots.

The match had been under way for only 11 minutes when rain forced the players off for more than an hour. By that stage Murray was already 3-1 up, having broken Malisse at the first time of asking when the Belgian double-faulted on the second break point.

Although the Scot had to save two break points straight after the resumption, he went on to take the first set with something to spare. Malisse had played poorly until that point, frequently hitting the ball long, but improved markedly in the second set.

Murray did not appear to be in any danger until he served at 5-6, having failed to take any of three break points in the previous game. A missed forehand gave Malisse two set points and he took the second of them when Murray put a forehand long.

The Scot quickly got back on track in the decider. Having broken serve in the third game, he saved two break points in the sixth and rounded off the match with another break at the end as Malisse put a lame forehand in the net. In today's third round Murray plays Serbia's Janko Tipsarevic, who beat Michael Russell 7-6, 7-6.

"It was tricky," Murray said afterwards. "The court is playing very, very slow for a grass court. There were quite a lot of rallies. I had a little chance at the end of the second set, didn't take it, and obviously he got back into it and started playing better. But I managed to turn it around in the end."

He added: "The movement is something that takes a bit of time. I actually moved pretty well today considering it was the first match. It's good to get through."

Rafael Nadal was due on later in the day for his opening match against the Australian Matthew Ebden. The world No 1 practised here on Monday, barely 24 hours after his victory in the French Open, and had his first taste of competitive action on Tuesday evening, partnering Marc Lopez to a 7-6, 6-2 first-round doubles victory over the Brazilians Thomaz Bellucci and Andre Sa.

Despite the withdrawal of Novak Djokovic, the field for this year's tournament is as strong as ever, with a starting line-up that also included Juan Martin del Potro, Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish, Marin Cilic, Fernando Verdasco, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Stanislas Wawrinka and Sam Querrey.

Roger Federer has played here only once, when he won just three games in a first-round defeat by Byron Black 12 years ago. Since then the current world No 3 has usually prepared for Wimbledon by playing at the grass-court tournament at Halle in Germany, where he has won the title five times.

The Halle tournament has centred around Federer for several years now, although that may change in the light of the ill-feeling his late withdrawal has caused this week. The 29-year-old Swiss pulled out on Monday, the day after his defeat by Nadal in the final at Roland Garros. "My body, especially my groin, really needs a rest," he said.

However Ralf Weber, the tournament director, said that Federer had not given any previous indication that he had fitness problems. "From a private jet to a nanny, we had everything prepared for him," Weber complained.

Federer's appearance fee is said to account for most of Halle's player budget, but Weber indicated that he would not be putting all his eggs in one basket in the future.

"We will now approach other top players like Nadal and Novak Djokovic," Weber said. "They have both been here before and they have no contract with the Queen's tournament. Their management teams have signalled they are ready to talk."

Appearance money, which can be paid to entice players to tournaments below Grand Slam and Masters Series level, has been a factor in assembling the field here. However, it remains the tournament that most of the top players, with Federer a notable exception, want to use as their main competitive action before Wimbledon, thanks in no small part to the quality of the courts.

Nadal won the title here en route to his first Wimbledon triumph two years ago, while Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt, two of the most consistent players on grass in recent years, have both won the tournament four times.