By Wendy M. Grossman
(June 12, 2014) LONDON – “You can tell Andy’s playing, There’s no queue.” Yes: 4pm in London, tea set out with strawberries, cakes, and sandwiches, and no one in sight.
Andy Murray was indeed out playing on the Queen’s Club centre court on a sunny, hot-for-England day (a ball girl had to be led off court and given water). His opponent: Radek Stepanek, the sort of veteran Czech player whose sharp volleys and grass court sense you don’t want to face a few days after making the switch from clay.
In the first set, Stepanek led 5-4, fashioned a break point on the Murray serve, and lost it to a sharp Murray angle into his backhand corner. At 6-2, Murray, in the tiebreak, it seemed clear Murray was going to prevail. And then stuff happened: Murray got hesitant and stopped hitting quite so hard; Stepanek went on playing well. Murray had more set points, at 7-6, and 8-7 (netted the return), and 9-8 (Stepanek into Murray’s backhand corner), and 10-9 (return long). And then Murray sent up a beautiful lob at 10-10, and…well, it was beautiful until it landed long. Stepanek, offered a second set point of his own, promptly scored a nice angled volley winner. Game and first set.
Stepanek scored a break at the beginning of the second set, and never let go after that, eventually winning 7-6(10), 6-2.
“I thought the first set was a pretty high standard,” Murray said afterwards, adding that given the number of set points he’d had, “I’ve only got myself to blame.”
Stepanek called it “a great win for me”, adding that, “you always want to come out and play your best against the best players”.
There aren’t many players left with Stepanek’s serve and volley style. Stepanek would like to see more of it; Murray might too, given that he’s often been successful at using such players as easy targets to pass.
The upshot is that where last year Murray lost early at the French Open and had ten days of grass-court practice in England before the season started, this year he came into Queen’s with only two days to make the shift, and now will go into Wimbledon with only two grass-court matches played. He plans to take the next few days off, then begin again on Sunday with the “Rally for Bally” charity match to raise money in the memory of the late British player Elena Baltacha. He’ll start practicing in earnest Sunday evening, looking to improve his service return and get used to the lower-bouncing balls. “I was too upright on the court, especially when I was rushed,” he said.