The match never quite lived up to their two epic encounters of last summer, but that will be of no concern to Andy Murray, who beat Juan Martin del Potro 7-6, 7-5, 6-0 here to reach the fourth round of the French Open for the eighth time in his career.
For a while it seemed that Britain might have two men through to the last 16 at Roland Garros for the first time in the open era, but Kyle Edmund was beaten 6-7, 7-6, 5-7, 6-1, 6-4 by South Africa’s Kevin Anderson.
Murray is running into form at just the right time following his moderate results in the first part of the clay-court season. After winning a marathon first set, in which he saved two set points, he started to look much more like the player who reached the final here last year.
“The second and third sets were the best I’ve played in the clay-court season this year,” he said afterwards. “Each set I played better. I started to figure things out again during the match.
“Maybe I didn't start the best, but I made some changes in the match tactically. That's very positive, because I wasn't doing that for the last few tournaments and the last couple of matches I have done it and totally turned the matches around.”
He added: “I was thinking between the points, what to do to try and give myself the best chance to win. That's the most important thing. It’s not what happens three or four seconds after a point finishes. It's what you're thinking just before you go up to the line and how you reset after losing tough points. I did that really well today.”
Murray next faces a meeting in the last 16 with the winner of Saturday’s later contest between John Isner and Karen Khachanov, which was halted because of rain after the Russian had won the first set 7-6.
While Murray has had to deal with a number of health and fitness issues in recent months, his problems have been nothing in comparison with Del Potro’s. The 28-year-old Argentinian has had four operations on his wrists since he won his only Grand Slam title at the 2009 US Open and has suffered a succession of other injuries. This was his first appearance here for five years.
Del Potro’s latest problem was a groin injury sustained in the previous round. He was again given anti-inflammatory pills, midway through the second set, and although he insisted afterwards that he had been free of pain, there were times when he appeared to be struggling with his movement.
Murray showed no mercy. The world No 1 had Del Potro running to all parts as he played a heady mix of drop shots and lobs. By opening up the court he exploited his opponent’s weaker backhand, which has never been the same since his wrist surgery. The world No 30, nevertheless, can still hit a monstrous forehand and struck some huge winners.
The temperature was a comparatively cool 18C as the match started just before 1pm. Under an overcast sky the conditions were slow, making it harder to generate pace and hit winners. Despite the fact that this was lunchtime – a key part of the day for most Parisians - there was a good crowd inside Court Philippe Chatrier for one of the most eagerly anticipated matches of the first week.
The first set did not disappoint. It took 84 minutes and was full of drama as the advantage tipped one way and then the other.
Murray won the first two points with drop shots and took the opening game with another. Del Potro, nevertheless, was the first to break serve, in the third game, and was soon hitting some thunderous forehands.
In the ninth game Murray saved a set point and in the tenth he broke back as Del Potro served for the set. In the tie-break the Argentinian saved two set points when trailing 6-4 and double-faulted when he served for the set at 7-6.
At 8-9 Del Potro made a crucial error when he hit a forehand just wide of the line. Carlos Bernardes, the umpire, had to check with the line judge before ruling that the ball was indeed out, upon which a disconsolate Del Potro leaned on the net, his head bowed, for the best part of a minute before heading back to his chair and throwing down his racket in disgust.
“I couldn't believe that I had lost that set, because I had many opportunities to win it,” he said afterwards. “I had been playing great, great points during the whole of the first set. But this happens when you play against the No 1 in the world or a great champion.”
The set brought back memories of the epic confrontations between these two men last summer, when Murray won their gold medal match at the Olympics and Del Potro earned his revenge a month later in the semi-finals of the Davis Cup.
On this occasion, however, the drama was cut short as Murray immediately turned on the pressure by breaking serve in the first game of the second set. Del Potro, nevertheless, is nothing if not a fighter. Buoyed by increasingly vocal support from the crowd with their rising chants of “Delpo! Delpo!” he hung on grimly.
This time it was Murray’s turn to be broken when he served for the set at 5-4, but Del Potro’s joy was short-lived. Murray broke back immediately and then took the set with a point that bordered on cruelty as he pulled his opponent around the court with a drop shot, lob and, finally, a deft overhead. Del Potro did not win another game as Murray completed his victory after two hours and 53 minutes.
“It was obviously an important win for me and a big match, because when Juan’s playing well he’s one of the best players in the world,” Murray said.
“I believe in myself, so even when things aren't going well, I believe I can turn it around. It's not easy, but if you do the right things in practice and trust it's going to come if you work hard and do all the right things, then it generally does.
“The five-set format has definitely helped that, so I have maybe not been as anxious going into some of the matches, because I know there is some time to turn it around. Mentally I feel pretty good just now.”
Murray next faces a meeting in the last 16 with either John Isner or Karen Khachanov, who will return on Sunday to complete their third-round match, which was stopped because of rain after the Russian had won the first set 7-6.
Edmund and Anderson were locked in a big-serving contest on Court 1 that lasted three hours and 59 minutes. The opening two sets both went to tie-breaks and the first break of serve came after two and three-quarter hours when Edmund took a 6-5 lead in the third set.
The 22-year-old Briton served out to take what might have been a decisive hold on the match, but Anderson came out with all guns blazing to break for the first time in the second game of the fourth set, which he went on to win convincingly.
At 2-2 in the decider Edmund held serve from 0-40 down, but at 4-4 he was broken again, upon which Anderson served out for victory to earn a fourth-round meeting with Marin Cilic.
Edmund said he would take many positives from the match. “There were very small margins,” he said. “That’s the difference at this level. The reality is that you’re not going to get masses of opportunities. They're all very small opportunities, small margins, and a few points here and there.”
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