Near-death in the afternoon: Murray and Wawrinka survive

The French Open didn’t occupy a prominent psychological place in Andy Murray’s tennis season — not in the distant past.

Murray’s favorite major tournament is and has been the U.S. Open. His most consistent major tournament is the Australian Open, where he’s reached five finals dating back to 2010. The major tournament freighted with the most pressure for Murray — but also the most historical resonance — is Wimbledon, where Murray has reached two finals, winning once in 2013 to stop the 77-year itch dating back to Fred Perry’s championship in 1936.

The French Open — where Murray has never played in the final — simply hasn’t acquired as much centrality in Murray’s seasons over time. If he lost in the fourth round, it wouldn’t be the same devastating blow as a fourth-round loss in any of the other three majors, especially the Australian (which he still hasn’t won) and Wimbledon, where a second title would carry a great deal of meaning. It’s true that Tim Henman — whose game was never made for clay — reached the French Open semifinals in 2004, thereby matching his best Wimbledon result. However, that was one year. Henman never replicated that performance — it was a one-off.

Andy Murray entered the 2016 French Open in a different place. The Scotsman had begun to create the very legitimate notion that he could stick on the crushed red brick. He could put a hurt on the dirt. He could stay on the clay.

Murray, you see, had advanced a long way from his 2011 French Open semifinal. That was his only final-four appearance in Paris through 2014. Roland Garros remained a puzzle, and since Wimbledon occurred just two weeks after the French Open through 2014, there wasn’t too much reason to go all-out in Paris.

Perhaps now that a three-week gap exists between these two majors, Murray feels he can go after the French more than he used to. That could be idle speculation, but the facts show that Murray has clearly improved on red clay in recent years.

He won a Masters 1000 clay event last year in Madrid, and he replicated that feat this year in Rome. He made the French Open semifinals in 2014 and then returned to the semis in 2015, when he stretched Novak Djokovic to a fifth set before losing.

Andy Murray came to Paris this year, fresh off his 29th birthday, thinking — with considerable legitimacy — that he could do some damage.

According to betting odds posted by SportsBettingExperts.com, it’s no surprise that Andy Murray is among the top three contenders to win the French Open, but it’s also not a shock that he’s the third choice (+400 odds) behind Novak Djokovic at -125 and Rafael Nadal  at +350.

Moreover, with Djokovic and Nadal tucked in the other half of the draw, Murray’s path to a first-ever French Open final was clearer than he ever had a right to expect. When he took the court on Monday for his first-round match against Radek Stepanek, he had to love his chances. When he entered Court Philippe Chatrier on Tuesday — able to fend off a two-set deficit, and standing on the verge of a one-set shootout against his 37-year-old opponent — he still had every reason to be optimistic. He had seemingly avoided the worst.

Then, however, Stepanek refused to fold in the fifth set.

The Czech veteran forged deuce at 5-4 on Murray’s serve. He then hit a punishing groundstroke to Murray’s ad corner. Stepanek threw down a decent drop shot. Murray needed every last ounce of speed to retrieve it and then deposit the ball in a place where Stepanek wouldn’t have an easy reply.

So many players, standing just two points from a crushing defeat, would have flinched on that point. Their reactions would have been slower. Their racquet skills would have been less polished. Their presence at the net would have been insubstantial.

Murray reminded us that while he’s no Djokovic, Nadal or Roger Federer, he’s better than the rest. His steely display won that deuce point when Stepanek’s attempt at a cross-court passing shot missed wide. Murray held for 5-5, and then Stepanek — clearly frustrated at his inability to break serve for the match — lost focus in a flood of errors. Murray broke for 6-5, and then — in a multi-deuce game — held to close out the match, 7-5 in the fifth.

It would have been so easy for Murray to duck out of a tournament he’d never mastered, even in a year when his prospects were never brighter. If he makes the final and gets a chance to play for his first French Open title in nearly two weeks, he’ll look back at this near-death experience as a turning point.

The same is true for Stan Wawrinka.

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Wawrinka played a solid second set against Lukas Rosol, but he no-showed in the first and third sets to fall behind, two sets to one. As devastating as a first-round loss would have been for Murray, such a defeat would have been almost as overwhelming for Wawrinka.

Though not the consistent high-level player Murray is on a weekly basis, Wawrinka — like his Scottish foe — owns two majors and resides in the non-Djokovic, non-Nadal half of the draw. Wawrinka would love nothing more than to play Murray in the semifinals, but several hours before Murray took the court against Stepanek, the Swiss had to confront the possibility that he would have to pack his own bags in round one. Rosol is famous for ushering Rafael Nadal out of Wimbledon in 2012, so it’s not as though Wawrinka was playing a tomato can. Wawrinka had to make Rosol wilt instead of waiting for something to happen.

Would a champion answer this test, much as Murray did one day later? Yes, indeed. Wawrinka powered through the past two sets, crushing his backhand whenever Rosol began to make a push.

Murray. Wawrinka. Two champions, two huge tests, two deficits of two sets to one.

Two survival acts.

Death in the afternoon did not claim two of the elite male tennis players in the world. The French Open, more meaningful than ever for Andy Murray, could still bring us a special semifinal between Britain’s best and the defending champion in Paris.

Dreams might not come true, but they’ll live for another day.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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