Finally a reason to feel optimistic about Andy Murray's chances


PARIS -- Roland Garros didn't shape up as the easiest place for Andy Murray to live up to his top seeding or for Juan Martin del Potro to continue bushwhacking his way through the overgrown paths to his former self.

Their paths intersected in the third round Saturday, a draw that cut both ways. It wasn't a lucky roll for world No. 29 del Potro in his first appearance here since 2012, but a somewhat inevitable consequence of his ongoing battle to improve his ranking after years largely lost to multiple wrist surgeries.

The prospect of the encounter was no pique-nique for Murray, either. He had little choice but to gear up in a manner befitting his elevated standing. "You know, to be playing him this early on in the Slam is obviously not easy, but it can be a very positive thing,'' Murray said. "You play someone that good, maybe you're a little bit more switched on; your focus is maybe a little bit higher.''

The dynamic of Murray's 7-6 (8), 7-5, 6-0 win was in some ways as simple as the line score looks -- a tugfest that gradually went lopsided as Murray tightened his grip. Its greater meaning was evident to a few knowledgeable observers.

"He's rounding himself into form, and this was almost a perfect Week 1 for him,'' ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said. "I certainly didn't expect him to be a factor in this tournament, but now, having seen what I've seen, I would have to re-evaluate. The biggest thing for him is the way he finished. It has to give him a lot of confidence.''

McEnroe said he'd still give Switzerland's Stan Wawrinka, the 2015 champion, the edge in Murray's half, but with Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem all stacked up on the other side, there are openings to be seized.

Tennis Channel analyst Mary Carillo, who called the match live for Tennis Channel and on replay for NBC during the tournament's first substantial weather interruption, said Murray's form was "The best I've seen Andy in a long time -- technically, tactically, emotionally. Clay gives him time to think, and he's a good thinker. He's still pretty crabby about his serve, but all else looks solid.

"Whoever he plays next, big serves seem to be the kind he reads very well,'' Carillo sai, referring to the rain-suspended match between John Isner of the U.S. and Russia's Karen Khachanov. "I like [Murray] a lot after three rounds.''

Murray is still in replenishing mode after the physical and emotional expenditure required to end last year as world No. 1. "I also know where I have come from, you know, even just 10 days or so ago. I was not playing well,'' the ever self-critical Scot said after the match, giving the word "not" a distinct bite.

Retired U.S. star James Blake, whose career overlapped with both men's, said Murray should be encouraged by Saturday's result. "Even if Murray didn't play up to the standards he set for himself last year, he earns himself an opportunity to find that rhythm and improve in the next round,'' Blake, a Tennis Channel analyst, said. "Every chance he has may feel like the time it will all click for him.''

In their first meeting since splitting scintillating matches in Olympic and Davis Cup action late last year, del Potro relied on his familiar and formidable forehand, accompanied by his "manly grunt,'' as Murray put it. The Argentine's power inspired more than a few mid-rally exclamations from an increasingly partisan crowd.

Del Potro further consolidated an already established affection from the French Open crowds this week with his kindness toward pal Nicolas Almagro, when the Spanish player had to retire from their second-round match.

"I think all the people like my story,'' he said. "I have been out for a long time. I'm trying to fix my wrist problem, and I never give up. Of course, everybody knows how my backhand is, if you compare with the old del Potro.''

After examining the mark of the ball that decided the first set, del Potro sagged for a few long moments on the net tape, incredulous that he'd let nearly an hour and a half of effort slip through his strings. "Too much frustration,'' he said. "But this happens when you're playing versus the No. 1 player in the world.''

A No. 1 who might be finding his footing at an ideal time.