The upside of Murray's maladies
PARIS -- Beware the wounded warrior. Mid-match injuries are hard on players, but they're no cakewalk for opponents, either. Suddenly, they find themselves playing an unknown quantity, unsure how bad the problem really is, confused about whether to stick to the original game plan or try to exploit the situation. The hurting player, meanwhile, if able to continue, becomes focused on trying to protect the injury and begins to play bigger. Anything can happen, and usually does.
Andy Murray is living the example at this year's French Open, coming through two matches after twisting his ankle. After hurting it early in his third-round match against Michael Berrer, Murray couldn't move, but he began hitting like a dream, winning in straight sets against his bewildered German foe.
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"I should have hurt him when he's down, but that's difficult for me," a regretful Berrer said afterward, having failed to take advantage of Murray's obvious lack of mobility. "In Germany, we have a saying that an injured deer has to fall. So that was what I should have done [on Saturday].
"I was so sure that he cannot go on, because it looked worse than it obviously was. I thought it's just a question of time, so I mentally was already like just trying to make him run. Then I took a step back and I was too defensive," he said.
"So I feel really bad now, I tell you. Really I'm very, very disappointed. That was a very big chance. I think a chance like this you get maybe once in your life."
Berrer, ranked No. 95 in the world, has never been past the second round of a Grand Slam before.
Though Murray had escaped, no one knew how the ankle would recover for his fourth-round match against Viktor Troicki. It didn't look good for the Scot as he proceeded to go down 5-0 to start the match. Then two sets to love. Then, after the match was stopped for darkness overnight, Murray was down 5-2 in the fifth set.
Somehow, however, he managed to complete a five-set win, running down Troicki's drop-shots and holding his own in the 16- and 19-shot rallies that peppered the closing stages of the match. The Serb, sensing the opportunity of playing a Grand Slam quarterfinal against fading veteran Juan Ignacio Chela, choked badly, and Murray slipped through instead. Controversy over a replayed point only added to the suspenseful atmosphere.
"I've got more pills in me, right now, than Ozzy Osbourne," Murray joked in a Tennis Channel interview afterward.
Speaking to French television in a courtside interview, he explained the turnaround. "I started going for my shots, he got a little bit nervous," said the fourth seed, sounding upbeat about his prospects the rest of the way. "I've always loved Roland Garros, had some decent runs here.
"I'm feeling comfortable on clay now, and hope I can get to the semis."
In normal circumstances, he would be heavily favored against Chela, who admits he is surprised to have gotten this far. But tests show that Murray's ankle is not just sprained.
"The three main tendons that go into the ankle, I have a partial tear in one of them. Then I don't even know how to explain the worst part of it," he said.
"There's a lot sort of liquid causing, yeah, stiffness and quite a lot of sort of crunching in the joint."
Another fall could cause real damage. That means Murray will have to be very careful how he moves on the slippery clay during the rest of the tournament. On the positive side, however, knowing his mobility is limited has forced him to go for more -- something that he is often advised to do. It's proving to be effective.
Even if the ankle acts up, Murray is one of the most dangerous players to face in such a situation, able to draw on his vast array of touch and placement to stay in points when unable to hit normally. In 2007, he injured his ankle against Tommy Haas in Indian Wells but managed to stay in the match by pushing and the slicing the ball back until the ankle loosened up.
And he has the example of Fabio Fognini, who stole the show here a few days ago with his wild foot-faulting, drop-shotting, forehand-winner-from-the-baseline hitting five-set win over Albert Montanes. After completing an improbable win, he shrugged in amazement. "When you're 5-5 in the fifth set, what are you supposed to do," asked Fognini afterward. "You have to try, and then you have to get a match ball. I was trying to give the best of myself, and, of course, I should have lost this match."
Montanes watched as confusion broke out about Fognini's injury -- whether he was entitled to treatment. Montanes looked helpless as he hit the ball back to Fognini time and time again.
"Well, maybe I'm going to be more aggressive next time," Montanes said. "It's always easy to say you could have done that, you should have done this, you should have seized more opportunities and be more aggressive on these points."
The Spaniard refused to sound bitter. "I'll be able to draw interesting lessons from it," he said. "I'm going to congratulate him. That's all I can say. Do you want me to hit him?"
Fognini pulled out of his quarterfinal match against Novak Djokovic, but Murray intends to stay around. And as long as he does, he remains dangerous.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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