When Andy Murray edged past Romania’s Marius Copil in a tight three-setter last year, he sat on his chair and bawled like a baby at the end of the match – a symptom of the relentless agony he was feeling from his arthritic right hip.
So there was a dramatic irony in the fact that Murray faced Copil again on Friday night in Antwerp, and again prevailed in a close finish. This time, though, Murray was chuckling in the interview room. He was tickled by a moment of slapstick comedy: a front-row fan who leant forward to catch a stray ball, lost his balance, and disappeared out of sight behind the courtside barrier.
“He must have had a few drinks to go down like that,” Murray grinned. “His friend obviously found it pretty amusing. It probably wasn’t worth it to catch a tennis ball.”
The comment was characteristic of Murray’s sunny mood in Antwerp this week, even if he had his grouchy moments on the court. His problem during the match is that he isn’t serving with much fluency, confidence or speed after coming into the European Open with a niggly right elbow that prevented him from practising that shot in the build-up.
This 6-3, 6-7, 6-4 win occupied 2hr 35min, and although he said afterwards that it wasn’t an especially draining contest – thanks mainly to Copil’s staccato, ace-heavy style – it is also true that he had to hit just over 130 serves. That could compound the wear and tear from earlier in the week and has the potential to limit him in Saturday’s semi-final. “I would have liked to have finished it in two sets,” he acknowledged.
The other side of the same coin is that Murray has now strung together three wins in a row for the first time in more than a year. It wasn’t perhaps the ruthless display he was looking for, because he served for a far more straightforward victory at 5-3 in the second set. But it still keeps him on track for the title here at the Lotto Arena, and added to the good vibes that are building at the end of this season.
“I spoke about it at the beginning of the tournament,” said Murray. “I’ve got to get better at closing matches out. I didn’t serve particularly well tonight and in those moments, it can help to get some free points on your serve. But if you’re putting – I don’t know – one of six first serves in when you’re serving for the match it just makes it a little bit more difficult.
“Maybe the elbow is a slight issue, although I am not really noticing it much during the match. When you’re playing someone like him who you know you’re not gonna break much, there’s a bit more pressure on you. I did well to get through considering the serving and I actually played really, really well for a set and a half. I felt like I almost played better than yesterday up until the 5-3 game. If I can improve the serving, I will give myself a lot of chances in matches.”
Ironically, Copil was also Murray’s third victim the last time he scored so many victories at a single tournament - the Citi Open in Washington, 14 months ago. That time, he was delayed by weather, and didn’t finish the match until an eye-popping 3.26am. Unsurprisingly, given the state of his hip at that stage, he was unable to recover in time to play his quarter-final against Alex de Minaur.
One memory of that night was the number of cruel drop shots that Copil deployed. It was noticeable here that Copil tried two more drop shots in the opening game, but Murray was onto them in a moment and flicked them away for winners. “I was moving pretty badly in Washington,” he recalled. “Whereas now it’s not an issue. Maybe guys have stopped hitting drop shots now but I hope they keep doing it.”
As Murray found his timing, he experimented with some short balls of his own, and then a couple of sumptuous backhand lobs that recalled his winning shot at the 2015 Davis Cup final in nearly Ghent. It feels like the good times are rolling again.