Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Tennis: Murray's golden touch stuns Stepanek

Andy Murray's room in his futuristic hotel here is painted jet black, with just four small lights positioned over his bed. It is so dark that after a pre-dinner doze over the weekend he awoke and was unable to find his shoes. There is no danger of losing anything in the bathroom, which is decorated in bright orange.

If the room sounds like it was designed to disorientate and confuse, its inhabitant had rediscovered his senses – not to mention his shoes – by the time he arrived yesterday at the Pabellon de Cristal, the venue for this week's Madrid Masters. In beating Radek Stepanek 6-4, 6-1 in just over an hour Murray played not only his best match since returning from the wrist injury that ruined his summer but also what he described as some of the finest tennis of his whole career.



Although the No 1 reached the final of a tournament in Metz two weekends ago, a Masters series tournament represents a step up in class and intensity. The way in which Murray was dictating play in the second set against Stepanek, thumping his groundstrokes and cracking passing shots down the line and across court, will have done his confidence no end of good, particularly against an opponent for whom he has great respect.



Stepanek is a throwback to another era – and not just in terms of his short-back-and-sides haircut and military demeanour. He has a lovely touch at the net, hits the ball without the heavy top-spin favoured by most modern players, varies the pace of his shots and is not afraid to serve-and-volley. The Czech, who was in the world's top 10 last year, has been in good form of late, climbing back from No 127 in the rankings in July to No 30 after returning from a back injury that kept him out for six months.



The first nine games went with serve until Murray slammed his foot on the accelerator with his opponent serving at 4-5 and 15-0. The Scot won the next four points, forcing Stepanek into errors through the sheer weight of his shots. A running forehand created set point, which was duly converted with a superb service return to Stepanek's feet.



Murray, who had taken time to find rhythm on his forehand, won seven games in a row to take a stranglehold on the match. He was never in trouble on his own serve, while his penetrating returns regularly bamboozled Stepanek, who is normally one of the sharpest of movers on court. By the end Murray was hitting the ball with the freedom and confidence he showed earlier this year in reaching the semi-finals of successive Masters series tournaments in the United States.



"That was one of the best matches I've played, not just since I've been back from injury but since I've been on the tour," Murray said afterwards. "If I keep that level of consistency I have a good chance of beating the best players."



Murray said that he had never expected to rediscover his best form immediately after returning from injury and felt he had considerable room for improvement even after reaching the Metz final. "My game wasn't quite fully together," he said. "I was still making some unforced errors and not returning that well."



In the second round tonight Murray plays Argentina's Juan Ignacio Chela, whom he has beaten on their last two meetings. The winner of that match will then face either Rafael Nadal or Marcos Baghdatis, who beat Andrei Pavel 6-3, 4-6, 6-1 yesterday. Roger Federer, the defending champion, starts his campaign tonight against Robby Ginepri, who beat Jürgen Melzer 2-6, 7-6, 6-4.

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