For the second time in a week, wild card and world No1 Andy Murray found himself facing one of the most improved players of the year, Albert Ramos-Vinolas.
It was at the Monte-Carlo Masters last week that the 29-year-old Spaniard, who only won his first career title last year, beat Murray from 0-4 down in the third set and reached his first Masters final and also a career-high ranking of 19.
The Spaniard’s resilience on clay was clear in his run to this Barcelona quarter-final meeting: two semis and final during the spring’s Golden Swing in South America aside from Monte-Carlo. He also beat the No6 Seed Roberto Bautista Agut to reach this second meeting with Murray, but the Briton was beginning to show more match sharpness after his month layoff with an elbow injury, particular in a testing match against Feliciano Lopez, Murray’s 100th win on clay.
However, Ramos-Vinolas came out fighting once again, buoyed up by the packed Spanish crowds and some near error-free tennis. And just as he had against Lopez, Murray was the slower adjust to the ever-changing conditions in Barcelona, and soon broken in the third game.
Murray continued to fire errors, first a netted drop shot then a forehand wide to hand the Spaniard another break, 1-4. Ramos-Vinolas was playing bold and aggressive tennis, slicing on level terms with Murray, defending strongly, and running Murray from side to side. It drew more forehand errors, and the Spaniard faced not a break point on the way to the 6-2 opening set.
The second set was tighter, longer, and more taxing for both men. Still the Spaniard did not face a break point, and still Murray’s first-serve percentage languished below 50 percent. The Briton had to save break points in the seventh game, which he did with a terrific drop shot, and despite his struggle to get traction against the Spaniard, he more than once conceded ‘out’ line calls in his opponent’s favour.
At 4-4 Murray had his back to the wall, serving at 4-5 and 0-40 down. Now he at last went on the offensive, attacking the net twice, serving big, and finally holding. He continued the forward play against Ramos-Vinolas’s serve to take the ball early on return and worked his first break point chance. A backhand winner, and he had the set, 6-4.
The Spaniard grabbed the initiative back at the start of the third set, breaking and then holding through a superb rally won by a backhand winner, 2-0. But the momentum took a turn when a wrong-footing shot from Murray seemed to twist the Spaniard’s foot, and he took a medical time-out after the third game.
Sure enough, he gave up a break to love, but managed to hold off the increasingly aggressive and line-hitting tennis of Murray.
It looked as though the deadlock was broken in the ninth game by Ramos-Vinolas, only for the Spaniard to throw in a nervy game as he served for the match, and Murray broke back. It would go to a tie-break after each played a point-winning drop-shot that had the arena on its feet.
Now Murray looked every inch the No1, and he pummelled to a 4-0 lead. With Ramos-Vinolas closing to 4-3, Murray hit a big serve and a serve-and-volley winner, and after precisely three hours, he drew one last error for the match, 7-6(4). And if there was one statistic that showed how effective he was on the offensive, he had won 22 points out of 30 at the net.
Murray next plays the No4 seed, Dominic Thiem, who beat lucky loser Yuichi Sugita, 6-1, 6-2. The Japanse man was enjoying one of his best career runs via wins over No9 seed Richard Gasquet and No7 seed Pablo Carreno Busta, but it took Thiem just 52 minutes to beat him.
The young Austrian enters his third meeting against Murray, their first since the quarter-finals in Miami in 2015 when Thiem was ranked just 52, without dropping a set.
And things have moved on considerably since that last meeting. By the end of 2015, Thiem was into the top 20 and has been in the top 10 for almost a year. It is worth noting, too, that most of the Austrian’s big wins have come on clay: six of his eight titles plus his only Major semi-final run, the French Open.
But away from Barcelona, another Briton has been enjoying one of his best ever runs of form. Aljaz Bedene, at the 250 in Budapest, beat No2 seed Ivo Karlovic, 6-4, 6-3, to reach the Hungarian Open semi-finals, having come through qualifying.
With his wins in Budapest plus three Challenger titles since March, the Briton is on a run of 15 straight wins, and 20 out of his last 21 matches.
Now, from a ranking of 102 in February, he is assured of a rise to 61, with the potential to reach a new career-high in the upper 40s should he go on to win the title. And that could be very valuable for the remainder of the clay swing.
Last year, Bedene reached a career-best third round at Roland Garros but missed out on Madrid and had to come through qualifying in Rome, where he lost in the first round.
First, he has to get more points from Budapest, and he next faces fellow qualifier Laslo Djere, who beat No4 seed Fernando Verdasco in three sets. Beyond that, the other final spot will be fought out between top seed Lucas Pouille and No6 seed Paolo Lorenzi.
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