When Andy Murray looked ahead to his first-round match against Ernests Gulbis here at the US Open he said it was important “to make him play a lot of balls because he gets impatient”. The 22-year-old Scot stressed that it was “not about smashing winners all over the court”.
Murray was as good as his word. The world No 2 played a typically clever match here this morning, keeping the ball in play and tempting the big-hitting Gulbis into a succession of mistakes. By the end of Murray’s 7-5, 6-3, 7-5 victory, Gulbis had made 51 unforced errors to his opponent’s 21. The Latvian also hit more winners – 46 to 33 – but it was Murray who dictated the pattern of a match in which he always seemed in command. He now plays Chile’s Paul Capdeville, who beat the Romanian Victor Crivoi 6-3, 6-0, 7-6.
Having beaten Gulbis three times before, most recently at Wimbledon earlier this summer, Murray knew exactly what to expect. Gulbis loves to go for his shots and on occasions delighted the evening crowd with some huge strokes from both flanks. The 21-year-old Latvian lacks patience, however, and Murray’s consistent ball-striking brought a regular reward. The Scot also attacked when the opportunity arose and Gulbis had trouble coping with his clever variations of pace.
Gulbis’ other major failing was his judgement on Hawk-Eye challenges. Two were hopelessly wrong and one – a Murray serve which landed nearly a foot inside the service line – left the spectators and both players laughing.
The 23,000-capacity Arthur Ashe Stadium was less than half full by the end of the night and the crowd were generally subdued, coming to life only when Gulbis threatened to make a match of it. The biggest cheers were reserved for a ballboy who fell spectacularly into a photographers’ pit by the side of the court.
Most parts of Murray’s game looked in good order. He hit 11 aces and found a good rhythm on serve when it mattered. From 0-40 down in one game in the second set Murray hit five unreturned first serves in succession. He struck his ground strokes with assurance, rationed his drop shots and volleyed smartly on the limited occasions when he approached the net.
Murray thought Gulbis played much better than he had at Wimbledon and was pleased with his own performance. “I thought it was good,” he said. “It was a high standard of match.”
The Scot drew first blood, breaking to lead 4-2 in the first set as Gulbis made four forehand errors in a row. The Latvian broke back immediately courtesy of two thumping winners down the line, but at 5-6 Murray took the set by chasing down a drop shot to hit a big forehand cross-court winner.
Having gone into a 3-0 lead at the start of the second set, Murray himself was broken to love when leading 4-2. Gulbis, however, dropped serve in the following game and Murray served out for the set.
The only time when Murray looked in any sort of trouble came with a heavy fall as he chased down a drop shot at 4-4 in the third set. The Scot crashed to the ground but was quickly on his feet and did not appear to suffer any ill-effects. “It was just a few bruises,” he said. “Maybe it will hurt in the morning for a little bit, but I don’t think I did any damage.”
Murray did not lose another game after his tumble. At 5-5 he broke serve with a lovely backhand cross-court winner and leapt into the air in celebration. The match finished in the next game in appropriate fashion, with Gulbis making two backhand errors.
Capdeville, Murray’s next opponent, is the world No 87. The 26-year-old Chilean has reached the second round here on two previous occasions, losing to Fernando Verdasco in 2005 and to Roger Federer in 2007. He won a Challenger tournament at Binghamton, New York last month and reached the second round in New Haven last week, but before that had lost nine first-round matches in succession.
To add to Murray’s satisfaction, two players who might have caused him trouble in future rounds went out. Ivo Karlovic, the No 27 seed and his potential third-round opponent, lost to Spain’s Ivan Navarro, while
Stanislas Wawrinka, whom Murray could have met in the fourth round, lost to Nicolas Lapentti.