By Philip James
Andy Murray (3) def Gilles Simon(16) 2-6, 6-4, 7-6(6)
Murray, seeded third for this clay court tournament had an impressive 10-1 record over Simon going into the match and had not lost to the Frenchman since their first match in 2007.
Those 10 wins include three on clay and the final of the Madrid Masters in 2008, when the tournament was played on a hard court.
Despite his impressive record, Murray looked in trouble against the 16th seed for large portions of the match.
Simon was much the aggressor to begin with while Murray seemed short of ideas and the Frenchman played some of his best tennis on the big points, saving 15 of 18 break points.
Murray on the other hand started slowly and passively while his shots down the line on either wing were way of kilter.
He struggled to find a first serve on the big points and was punished on his second serve whilst not taking advantage of his opponent’s relatively weak second serve.
It was only when Murray reversed that trend, and started to take advantage of Simon’s obvious discomfort at the net that he was able to recover to win the match 2-6, 6-4 7-6(6) in just under three hours.
The first set started disastrously for Murray, broken in the opening game when he hit a down-the-line backhand carelessly wide on Simon’s second break point.
At 2-3 down, a couple of errors from the Frenchman and a good return gave Murray his first and only break point of the set but he still had not found his rhythm and hit went listlessly long.
Immediately he was made to pay for the missed opportunity with another Simon break, in a game where Murray was told by the umpire to speed up between serves.
From 30-30 Murray could not find a first serve and though Simon missed his return on the first break point he punished a weak second serve on the next, to take the double break.
A hold later and the first set was in the bag for the Frenchman and deservedly so.
He had put on a dominant, controlling display while a passive, uninspired Murray seemed not at the races, a theme which looked set to continue into the second set.
Again serving first, Murray led 30-0 but unforced errors from the Scot let Simon back into the game before some world-class ground strokes earned the 16th seed an early break.
All the aggression was coming from Simon while Murray looked lost at sea, especially in the next game when he looked flustered and undecided in unsuccessfully challenging a Simon serve.
But then came the turning point, as Murray held from 0-30 and then won his first break of the match.
First Murray started to change his strategy, coming to the net himself almost out of desperation and then drawing Simon into the net, a place he clearly was not comfortable.
After Murray’s hold from 0-30, came the longest and most pivotal game of the match.
Until this point Simon had been winning an incredible 75% of points on his second serve but Murray started to apply pressure, eventually taking the 10-minute game on the seventh break point to level the set at 2-2.
Another marathon game occurred as Simon was serving to stay in the set at 4-5, the Frenchman saving four set points.
But Murray has found the key to victory by now, in bringing Simon to the front of the court where his inability to volley also meant he went for too much on his half-court approach shots.
And it was just as such an error on Murray’s fifth set point as Simon again netted, handing Murray the hour-long set and squaring the match.
Britain’s number one was now in the ascendancy and after an early break to make it 3-0 it looked like he might wrap the match up quickly, but Simon would not go away quietly, breaking back to level the set at 3-3.
Murray then had three match points as Simon served at 5-6 but more unceremonious errors from the Scot lost the points and the Simon and held onto force a tie-break.
Even from 4-1 down the breaker, the Frenchman did not know when he was beaten, recovering to 4-4 and still going for ‘all or nothing’ ground stokes.
At 5-4 down, he missed such a shot, giving Murray two more match points but again both went begging.
An ace from Murray brought up his sixth match point and this one he took, fittingly as Simon had to come forward and duly dumped the volley into the net.
Murray will play sixth seed Tomas Berdych in the quarter-final tomorrow and will need to play a lot better to stand a chance of reaching the semi-finals.