When the Wimbledon draw was made, Andy Murray might have expected a tough encounter with a Spaniard in the quarter-finals. Little did he know how tough or indeed the identity of the Spaniard. The man in question was not Rafael Nadal but Fernando Verdasco, who Murray squeaked past today by the nailbiting score of 4-6 3-6 6-1 6-4 7-5.
The Scot began the match in a throwback to his more passive days, drifting arced groundshots into the Spanish number nine’s strike zone and ducking for cover when Verdasco’s pulverising forehands repeatedly found the corners of the Centre Court.
The world number two persisted with his strategy of passive mindgaming, perhaps encouraged by his opponent’s ferocious forehand, too big on occasion to be harnessed by the confines of the court.
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Serving at 4-5 and flirting with the outside edge of the white lines, Murray drifted to 30-40 and double-faulted under scoreboard pressure to hand the set to the Spaniard.
Matters improved for the Scot at the start of the second set. Although still taking the ball a bus journey from the baseline, the British number one profited from a Verdasco forehand that was wild as the wind to steal a break for 2-1.
Murray converted on his own serve, but then the Verdasco forehand clicked into gear once more, the ball rearing off the turf like a startled stallion. The Spaniard drew level at 3-3 and then capitalised on Murray’s nerves to break for 5-3, assisted by a shocking ball that clipped the net and died.
Although Murray made it to 0-30 in the next game, care of a screaming cross-court forehand that capped a 28-shot rally, he misfired while vacillating between passive and aggressive and the set drifted away.
Facing both a man and a mountain, the Scot rallied, taking the initiative from Verdasco and striking over 40% of balls inside the baseline, almost twice the figure from the previous sets.
Now the Scot was ripping into Verdasco, taking the bite out of the Spaniard’s shots and the heart out of his game. At 5-1, a deft dropshot followed by a routine volley gave Murray the third set. Just as the sun shed its first light on Centre Court, there was at last a ray of hope for the world number two.
Murray clung on for much of the fourth set, but managed the decisive move at 3-3 thanks to a wild Verdasco forehand, and the crowd was suddenly out of their seats and driving their man into a decisive fifth.
Although Verdasco lives or dies by his blood-and-thunder game, his mental strength can be eggshell-thin, and so it proved at 5-5, 30-all. In a pulsating 20-stroke rally that used every blade of grass, Murray desperately hoiked returns to the backhand of the former world number seven, painting the lines and setting up a break point.
At 30-40, the Scot belted a forehand deep behind the world number 54 and Verdasco’s reply sailed long. The crowd rose as one and Murray bellowed into the early-evening air and prepared to serve out for a spot in the semis.
A piledriven forehand, a wide slice and a sweetly soaring ace brought him to three match points, and when Verdasco went long on a forehand, Wimbledon Centre Court erupted in an ear-bursting crescendo that spoke as much of relief as jubilation.
Murray said, "He served unbelievably well, especially when he was behind. In the first set, he played some really good stuff; in the second set, my level dropped and I started rushing a bit, but just managed to turn it round.
"He's a very, very good player. He's been at the top of the game before and he's playing well again. I started to play more solid and really took my time when I had the chance."
Murray will need similar reserves of courage and willpower in Friday’s semi-final when he takes on 24th seed Jerzy Janowicz, who disposed of his friend and compatriot Lukas Kubot in three rather more comfortable sets.