Murray wrestles advantage as Benneteau resists fall guy role

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The Independent Online

The prize for the winner is a third-round encounter tomorrow against Andy Roddick, who has been runner-up to Roger Federer here for the last two years. Roddick made swift work of his similarly late match against Germany's Florian Mayer, winning 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 in just 69 minutes.

Murray beat Roddick on his way to his first senior title earlier this year and would love the chance to prove his qualities to Brad Gilbert, the coach he would like to employ. Gilbert, who is mulling over an offer to work with Murray and the Lawn Tennis Association, was Roddick's coach when he won the US Open title three years ago.

Gilbert is here commentating for the American broadcaster ESPN and will surely have been impressed with what he has seen. Murray got off to a flyer with his first-round victory over Nicolas Massu and if he made a slower start here he more than made up for it as the match progressed.

The late finish meant the players had to cope with an increasingly slippery court. Murray has had a number of ankle problems and there were several occasions when he slipped and winced in pain. Benneteau also had trouble keeping his feet and it was fortunate both escaped serious injury.

In the second set Murray fell twice in one game and was left clutching his left ankle and then his right. At the subsequent changeover he told the umpire: "These courts are so slippy. When are we going to play until?" The match continued for another hour.

Murray, who is now the only home player left in the men's or women's singles, is the British No 2, but any suggestion of a mismatch against the French No 8 would be misleading. There are nine Frenchmen (and only two Britons) in the world's top 60 and 21 Frenchmen (and only four Britons) in the top 200.

Benneteau, whose current world ranking at No 55 is his highest ever, is in the form of his life. He was the last home player to go out of the French Open, losing in the quarter-finals after a run that included victories over Marcos Baghdatis and Radek Stepanek.

The 24-year-old started off determined to play with aggression, hitting some scorching double-handed backhand winners, but his forehand became increasingly unreliable. Struggling to find his timing, he regularly snatched at his shots and made a succession of errors.

For the first hour Murray's game was a curious mixture of caution and attack. The Scot can be a laid-back individual off court and at times seemed to take that mindset into the match, contenting himself with keeping the ball in play and waiting for Benneteau to err.

The drop shot is often one of Murray's most potent weapons, but it can be a dangerous stroke if your touch is less than immaculate. In those early stages it was some way short of perfection, with one of his attempts bouncing before it even reached the net. When he did get the ball over there was often too much pace on it, enabling Benneteau to chase the shot down.

Nevertheless, it was clear that Benneteau would be in trouble whenever Murray upped the pace. Indeed, the power that the Scot injected into his shots nearly always had the Frenchman struggling. Murray also showed a pleasing willingness to follow his better approach shots into the net.

Benneteau signalled his intentions from the very first point, leaping off the ground to hit a blistering backhand winner. Murray saved two break points in that first game, failed to take three chances of his own to break two games later and was broken at 2-2. Benneteau won two points with scorching backhand returns but took the game when Murray fluffed an attempted drop shot.

The Frenchman played a poor game to let Murray level at 4-4 and the crucial point of a tight tie-break came when his double-fault gave Murray set point at 6-5. The Scot's powerful first serve did the rest.

If Benneteau felt he had let the first set get away from him he began the second in determined fashion, winning the first three games. It was at this stage Murray started playing with the fire and passion that bring the best out of him.

Murray, now hitting some exquisite drop shots, reeled off five games in a row to go 5-3 up. Benneteau held serve to make it 5-4, but the Scot served out for the set. Although the last three points were mistakes by the Frenchman, Murray had put him under pressure by opening the game with a wonderful backhand winner down the line.

When a fired-up Murray broke Benneteau in the first game of the third set it seemed that the end might be swift, but he played a poor game at 3-4 to let the Frenchman back in. The tension reached fever pitch in the next game - the BBC apologised for an obscenity by the Scot which their microphones picked up - as Murray came desperately close to breaking back.

Benneteau saved two break points, however, and then took the set by winning four points in a row. The penultimate point was cruel on Murray, who saw Benneteau's backhand return clip the top of the net and dribble over the other side. Murray then hit a forehand long to hand Benneteau the set, at which point the umpire called a halt.

Today's Centre Court crowd will no doubt relish the resumption of hostilities, but the happiest person will be Roddick, who will no doubt be delighted that his next opponent still has work to do.

Yesterday at Wimbledon

* Rafael Nadal, the No 2 seed, recovered from two sets down to beat American qualifier Robert Kendrick and set up a clash with Andre Agassi.

* Top seed Amélie Mauresmo sparkled on Centre Court to cruise past the Australian Samantha Stosur 6-4, 6-2 in 59 minutes.

* Britain's Jamie Delgaldo lost in four sets to the No 15 seed Sébastien Grosjean, of France, on Court 13.