On a day when it seemed easier to put pedal to metal and cruise to victory, Andy Murray today took the scenic route into the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, wending his way past Grigor Dimitrov, 6-4 6-7 6-3 7-5.
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A sluggish start saw Murray, who throughout looked as calm and composed as a monk meditating by a millpond, slip to a 0-3 deficit. But the Scot began to get more purchase on the ball, driving hard, deep and wide to level at 3-3.
At 4-4, 30-30 on his own serve, the Bulgarian drove an errant forehand down the line. Then, on the second of some 19 break points that Murray would enjoy on an unseasonably chilly Melbourne evening, he clipped away a forehand to seal the break. The Brit held without drama for a 6-4 first set.
In the second, the world number six broke in the third game with aggressive forehand driving. But in a theme that would run throughout the match, the Scot reverted to passive play once in the ascendancy and gave up the advantage for 3-3.
The passive-aggressive play rumbled on until 5-5 on the Bulgarian’s serve, when Murray dinked a neat crosscourt ball to Dimitrov’s feet to steal the break. But the Scot couldn’t serve it out and slipped to a 6-3 deficit in the tiebreak.
Mighty serving got the Brit back to 5-6, but Sharapova’s squeeze nailed a service winner to knot the encounter at a set apiece. With his coach Roger Rasheed screaming the house down, the Bulgarian had wound himself up like a corkscrew to haul himself back into the match.
At 2-2 in set three, Dimitrov raced to a Murray drop shot and clearly failed to get the ball up. Although Murray won the point, the incident left a bad taste. Would it fire up the Scot? Mogadon-calm, Murray quietly took Dimitrov’s serve at 4-3 and served out with some canny wide sliders.
In set four, the Bulgarian blew hot once more as the Scot tried to figure out a new set of tactics. While he made his mind up, some more play as passive as a puppy in a playpark saw Murray slip to 2-5 but, from there, the turnaround was swift and decisive.
Murray broke at 5-3 with Herculean defence and astute counter-attack, then held at 4-5. When he swept away a service return at 5-5, 0-40 to take an improbable 6-5 lead, Murray clenched his fist and roared into the midnight air, as the Bulgarian reduced his racket to matchwood.
At 40-30, the Scot hit a routine forehand that caught the tape and died, and an ironic smile played around his lips. Some would see the luck as a sort of wild justice for Dimitrov’s double-bounce gamesmanship of earlier.
In Tuesday’s quarter-final, Murray will take on Australia’s 19-year-old starlet Nick Kyrgios, who came from two sets down to beat Andreas Seppi in a rock-concert atmosphere on his favoured Hisense Arena.