Not Great, But Good Enough: Murray Ousts Berankis As His Quarter Opens

Murray reached the second week, but not in dazzling fashion.

The only notable player from Lithuania, Ricardas Berankis enjoyed his breakthrough last year by reaching the Los Angeles final after many had wondered whether his small stature and chronic injuries would prevent him from fulfilling his potential.  Berankis reminded audiences of his status as one of the next generation’s more intriguing ATP hopes when he reached the third round here with straight-sets victories over Sergei Stakhovsky and Florian Mayer.  At that stage, however, he faced US Open champion Andy Murray, who had advanced through the draw in equally impressive fashion and knew all that he needed to know about his opponent’s game from his experience with him as a practice partner.  While Berankis acquitted himself well in his debut on a stage of this scale, the Scot ultimately reached the second week with an uneven 6-3 6-4 7-5 victory.

Despite a slightly tense opening service game, Murray lost no time in pouncing on his occasional practice partner’s serve in building a 3-0 lead.  Throughout the tournament, he had excelled at lunging ahead early in sets before his opponents could settle into the match.  Another area in which Murray had impressed in Brisbane and Melbourne concerned break points, which he had saved in bunches during service games that he eventually held.  Four more came and went for Berankis in the fifth game today before the third seed escaped with his lead intact.

Struggling to win points on his own serve, the Lithuanian collected just five of the first fifteen as he dropped serve again to position Murray within range of his second 6-1 set of the tournament.  A little like Azarenka earlier, the Scot continued to fall behind on his own service games, where he looked much more vulnerable than on his return games.  This time, he could not escape the pressure, handing  a break back to Berankis on the sixth opportunity.  Suddenly in a dogfight, Murray could not earn the set-ending break but instead needed to save two more break points on his service game before finally closing out a set that he had looked likely to dominate.

As expected, the Lithuanian had dominated the winner totals and the unforced error totals, recording more than twice as many as Murray in both categories.  The US Open champion, by contrast, played a generally conservative brand of tennis while waiting for his opponent’s inconsistencies to emerge.  But his labored service games continued, forcing him to serve twice as many points as Berankis by early in the second set.  Murray turned his challenger’s pace against him brilliantly at times, however, whipping cross-court forehands within inches of the opposite baseline after his opponent had blasted backhands within inches of his baseline or corner.  Exhibiting his fancy touch around the net, Berankis responded with delicate drop shots and backhand slices around the net posts.

When the Lithuanian unleashed a series of crisp returns to break for 4-2, Murray mustered a strong return game of his own that culminated with a beautifully placed lob over his short opponent.  In the crucial ninth game, Berankis coughed up two routine groundstroke errors that set up a break point, which he saved in spectacular style by converting a smash from behind his own baseline.  Murray failed to convert another break point, but the third time proved the charm as the Scot earned a chance to serve out the second set.

Much as he had at the end of the first set, Berankis thrust the third seed into a dangerous position at 0-30, only to watch the score shift to set point as he failed to put three straight returns in play.   Keeping the Lithuanian pinned behind the baseline with biting slices, Murray eventually drew a net cord for the two-set lead.

With any hope for an upset effectively extinguished, Berankis faded somewhat in the third set by inflicting less pressure in his return games and dropping an early service game relatively meekly.  He did earn a break point in the sixth game, but Murray saved it as the overall lull persisted.  One final burst of energy carried Berankis to a break at the eleventh hour that leveled the set at 5-5, profiting from some listless play by his opponent.  Regrouping immediately to break once more and hold with conviction, Murray closed out the match for his fifth straight second-week appearance at the Australian Open.

To progress further into the draw, however, he must protect his serve more effectively against returners more dangerous than Berankis.  And too much of the old “mopey Murray” resurfaced in his body language for one to feel overly confident of his chances to defeat Federer and Djokovic consecutively.  Before then, Murray enjoys an open route to the semifinals following upsets of Del Potro and Cilic today.  Perhaps he can use the next round or two to build greater momentum for the last two stages.