As the youngest player in the ATP top 100, 20-year-old Jiri Vesely nearly stunned world No. 6 Andy Murray Monday. But in the end, it was Murray surviving and advancing to the fourth round of the 2014 BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Southern California.
After dropping the opening set in a tiebreak, Murray showcased his resiliency, fighting through some sloppy play and tough breaks to win it in three sets, 6-7(2), 6-4, 6-4.
Early on it appeared that it would be smooth sailing for the two-time Grand Slam champion, who took a commanding 3-0 lead in the first set after breaking Vesely's serve twice to open the match. But the world No. 77 wasn't content to roll over, breaking Murray's serve and winning consecutive games to narrow the gap at 3-2.
Murray would recover to win his next two service games, but some daring play by Vesely down the stretch turned the tide as the Czech youngster broke Murray for a second time in the set to get back on serve. After watching a 5-4 advantage turn into a 6-5 deficit, Murray held serve to force a tiebreak.
The No. 5 seed was almost lifeless in the extra session, though, losing the last four points to drop the set and hand momentum over to Vesely.
Neither player was accurate with his first serve in the first set, but Murray struggled mightily on his second serve, winning just 8 of 21 points for the set.
The second set began the same way the first set ended, with Vesely taking control and dictating points en route to breaking Murray in the opening game. Murray would break in the sixth game to get back on serve at 3-3, but he was unable to find the gas pedal as Vesely broke him right back to pull ahead in the all-important seventh game.
Then, just two games away from taking the match, Vesely tightened up and made some simple errors that wound up costing him the set as Murray fought back to win the last three games to secure the set at 6-4.
Despite being broken twice in the second frame, Murray was able to have more success with his first serve, putting 64 percent into the box as opposed to 52 percent in the first set.
Surprisingly, Vesely bounced right back to break Murray in the opening game of the final set. But a poor service game moments later saw Murray level the set at one game apiece. The trend continued in the third game as Vesely broke Murray again on his fourth break point of the game.
The Czech underdog saw Murray fight back from a 0-40 hole in the game and would have been deflated had he not capitalized.
Vesely would consolidate on the break moments later, taking a 3-1 advantage in the decisive set.
Trailing 4-2, Murray made his charge, winning the next four games to secure the win and a berth in the fourth round. While the victory highlighted Murray's unrivaled resiliency, it also showcased Vesely's nerves and inexperience as he finished with 11 double faults, a handful proving costly down the stretch.
Despite Monday's win marking the second in three days that Murray has dropped the opening set, his tough-mindedness must be encouraging for himself and his team.
Coming into the tournament, Murray expressed optimism during a press conference in New York City over his recovery from back surgery last fall and his opportunity to record his 10th Masters 1000 win at Indian Wells:
The first few tournaments back were hard but my body feels good now. Last week in Acapulco I played four matches in four days, three three-set matches, which didn't start until late. I woke up the next day and felt fine for the first time since the surgery. That shows I am starting to recover properly though which is great.
Now that Murray has his legs under him at Indian Wells, he's without a doubt a threat to win the title. His biggest challenge at the top of the draw will be defending champion Rafael Nadal, whom he could potentially match up against in the quarterfinals later this week. But there's no question Murray is capable of beating anyone in the men's game when healthy.
Up next, Murray will face the winner of No. 10 Milos Raonic vs. Alejandro Falla.
Murray and Raonic have not met since 2012. They were scheduled to meet five times total that year, but only played one another on three occasions following withdrawals in Miami and Toronto. Raonic leads the all-time head-to-head 2-1, beating the Scotsman in an epic three-setter on the hard courts of Tokyo in their most recent matchup.
Meanwhile, Murray is 2-0 all time against Falla, beating him in Miami in 2012 and in Los Angeles back in 2010. Murray won all four sets as well.
He'll be a favorite against either player but will need to start much faster and reduce his unforced-error count if he's to have a shot at surviving his quarter of the draw.
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