Battling Andy Murray downs Denis Shapovalov to set up first clash with Novak Djokovic since 2017

Battling Andy Murray scraps past Denis Shapovalov to set up mouth-watering Novak Djokovic clash – REUTERS

Where the British youngsters fell short on Tuesday in Madrid, the seasoned veteran stepped up as Andy Murray scored his best win of the year – and set up a first meeting in five years with world No 1 Novak Djokovic.

In what was at times a laser-focused performance, Murray downed 17th-ranked Denis Shapovalov at the Mutua Madrid Open in three sets to reach the last-16, which will be his long-awaited 37th match against Djokovic.

The last time he and the Serb met, in Doha in January 2017, Murray was the world No 1 but just months away from being incapacitated by the hip injury that would set his career off course for the next three years. Now, ranked 78th and still on the comeback trail, Murray will finally be able to test himself against the greatest rival of his career.

And the 34-year-old admitted the possibility had played on his mind during Tuesday’s match.

“I thought about it a little bit at the beginning of the third set,” Murray said afterwards. “I didn’t know if I was going to get the opportunity to play matches like that again. In theory, I shouldn’t have a chance, I’ll try my hardest.

“But I’ve put myself in a great position, I’ve worked extremely hard the last five to six weeks to put myself here. And it’s a fantastic opportunity to play him again on a huge court so I look forward to it.”

The opportunity is all thanks to his hard-fought, late-night 6-1 3-6 6-2 win, which was Murray’s first top-20 scalp of the year and best since he beat Jannik Sinner (10) in Stockholm last November .

It is also only the second time he has recorded consecutive wins at a tournament this season. And all the more impressive because he and Shapovalov’s only previous meeting was at Wimbledon last year, where Murray was easily dispatched by the Canadian in a straight-sets third round defeat.

Since then, Shapovalov has linked up with Murray’s coach of five years Jamie Delgado – who he split from last year – but the insider intel was not enough to help the Canadian. Murray, as he did in the first round against Dominic Thiem, looked as good as he has since returning to the tour with a metal hip, especially in the first set.

Andy Murray has impressed in his two outings in Madrid so far - REUTERS

Andy Murray has impressed in his two outings in Madrid so far – REUTERS

Where Murray was consistent and defensively sharp, Shapovalov was erratic and error-strewn at first, overhitting his way into trouble and screaming in frustration throughout. But he tightened up the sloppy shots in the second set, as Murray began to look leggy, and pushed things to a third set.

Murray was the better player from thereafter, but it was still tight. He had two break points at 2-1 up in the decider, including after a fine drop shot chase down and cross court winner, which had the crowd on their feet, but it turned out to be a wasted chance.

He kept his focus though, in particular with absurd return statistics, and went for the kill at the next break-point opportunity to nudge himself in front again. Then, after more than two hours on court, he served his way into the last 16.

It is an intriguing moment for Murray to play Djokovic, with the Serb still finding his way back to top form after missing a huge chunk of the tour so far this year due to coronavirus restrictions limiting his ability to travel unvaccinated.

But on Tuesday he made an impressive start to his campaign in Madrid, beating Gael Monfils 6-3, 6-2 in the second round – his 18th straight win over Monfils, which is a record in head-to-heads on the ATP tour .

Meanwhile, two-time grand slam finalist Kevin Anderson announced his retirement from tennis. The 35-year-old South African hit a peak of world No 5 in 2018 after reaching the final at the US Open the previous year and then at Wimbledon.

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