Murray Toys With Robredo in the Magic Box

Andy Murray had a plan in Madrid today and Tommy Robredo played right into it.

Tommy Robredo mishit a backhand and sent the ball flying out of the court to let Andy Murray win a tough service game and get to 4-4 in the first set of their third round match in La Caja Magica (The Magic Box), the magnificent new stadium in Madrid that is the site of this week’s Masters 1000 event. Murray immediately took the remaining tennis ball out of his pocket and swiped at it as he let out the curse in the middle of the following sentence: “All you need to do is ****ing play every point like that.”

Madrid Tennis Open - Day Six

Murray may have been yelling at himself or he may have been playing with Robredo’s head because clearly the message was: “All I have to do is play safely and let my opponent make errors to win this match.” Murray is often criticized for not playing aggressively enough and today he was turning the criticism on its head by verbally embracing “a just keep the ball in the court” strategy.

Murray may have been mad that he squandered two break points in the previous game with a few careless errors, but he really was just keeping the ball in the court. At times he looked like he was out on the practice court carefully hitting crosscourt backhands and forehands.

In the next game, Murray’s strategy appeared to be working as Robredo hit three unforced errors and Murray found himself up two break points again. I didn’t doubt that Murray could improve his clay court results this year but I did wonder how he’d go about it. He’s had problem with his conditioning in the past and here he was, relying on that conditioning by playing “be the backboard” therefore guaranteeing long points. And he was playing defensively against a Spanish player on Spanish soil. Was this being smart and reading his opponent or just being arrogant?

The strategy didn’t work just yet. Robredo forced Murray into errors to save those two break points and though Murray got two more of them, Robredo kept enough balls in the court to hold serve. But on Robredo’s next service game at 5-5, here we were again: Robredo hit more errors and Murray was up two break points one more time. Robredo knew it too because there went his racket flying across the court.

It must be extremely annoying to see your opponent exert just enough energy to stay in the point and wait around until you make an error then fulfill his expectations by doing just that. Robredo is smart enough to know what Murray was doing but apparently he thought the only way to beat him was going for winners. That’s kind of curious because Robredo has won 21 games on clay this year while Murray has won only 5 and here was Robredo whacking away instead of throwing in some drop shots or changing up speeds or, I don’t know, keeping the ball in the court just enough to force Murray to try a different tactic.

I suppose it’s not arrogance if it’s true. Robredo hit another inside out forehand error to lose that break point and go down a break at 5-6. Murray then served out to take the first set 7-5. Murray got another break early in the second set and now he’d succeeded completely. He was totally in Robredo’s head and took the next step, which was tantamount to rubbing Robredo’s face into the dirt after knocking him down. Murray turned to aggressive attacking tennis. Robredo won the first game in the second set and that was it.

Do you think Murray is that sophisticated? Did he and his team read Robredo well enough to come up with the strategy of completely demoralizing him in the first set then going for the jugular in the second? Don’t think they’re that good though they are very good. Murray saw Robredo struggle and he managed to remind himself, with a bit of yelling, to let Robredo continue his self-destruction.

Murray overtook Novak Djokovic and is now the number three player on the planet. If Djokovic and Murray are the next version of Federer-Nadal, I’m still having trouble seeing Mr. Cat and Mouse taking many slams. But Murray has beaten Djokovic the last three times they’ve played so I’d better get used to it.

By the way, Andy Roddick got a wedding present from Nikolay Davydenko today: a walkover into the quarterfinals. And Ivan Ljubicic is still trucking along and finds himself in the quarterfinals, though he played in a weak quarter with an out of form Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon who is allergic to big events.

One more thing about The Magic Box. Its shaker and mover is one Ion Tiriac, former tennis player and manager – he was Ilie Nastase’s Svengali and Boris Becker‘s manager. Since then he has branched out. Two years ago he was worth more than $1 billion from a wide range of financial interests that include a bank appropriately named Banca Tiriac.

As you can see, Tiriac is not short on ego and he’s now making noises about elevating the Madrid event to the fifth slam. I’m sure the organizers of Indian Wells and Miami are rolling their eyes over that one. Those are both two weeks events – well, more like a week and a half but at least they’re longer than Madrid – and they both rank only behind the four slams in ticket sales.

Having said that, Tiriac is a very smart guy and clearly handles the financial world very well. Indian Wells, meanwhile, almost lost its event a few years ago and had to sell some land and call in financial help from former tennis players like Pete Sampras. Last year they lost their longtime sponsor Pacific Life and managed to sign up BNP Paribas to replace it.

The event in Miami is sponsored by Sony Ericsson and many tennis observers expect the company to drop their sponsorship when the contract runs out. Sony Ericsson is also the main sponsor for the WTA and it surely doesn’t help that their marketing ambassador Maria Sharapova hasn’t played their event for the past two years and has missed the last eight months of the WTA tour with a shoulder injury.

It’s very unlikely that we’ll get a fifth slam and surely not on clay, but if any tournament czar can pull it off, it’s Tiriac.