Editor’s Note: But for the COVID-19 pandemic, Roland Garros would now be underway. During the next two weeks ATPTour.com will look back on memorable matches and happenings at the clay-court Grand Slam, which tournament organisers are now hoping to stage in September.
Andy Murray entered 2016 Roland Garros in tremendous form, fresh off his second clay-court ATP Masters 1000 title at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia. The second-seeded Brit, who didn’t drop a set in Rome, appeared primed for a deep run at the season’s second Grand Slam.
That was until Murray found himself quickly two sets down against Czech veteran Radek Stepanek.
It took a rapid turnaround, an extra day of play, and a little bit of luck, but Murray clawed his way past the 37-year-old 3-6, 3-6, 6-0, 6-3, 7-5 after three hours and 41 minutes.
“It’s an extremely important match for me. It could turn out to be one of the biggest wins of my career, which, it also may not, but to get through that match, it was really, really important for me,” Murray said. “It easily could have gone the other way. When it is pretty much one set to stay in the tournament, you have to have as much energy, intensity as you can.”
Playing under heavy conditions, Stepanek showed no fear against the World No. 2, stepping into the court and controlling play at every opportunity. Murray knew he had to reverse that trend, and quickly, if he was to avoid a big upset in Paris. But even after levelling the match at two sets apiece, darkness sent the match to a second day.
“I was actually starting to play quite well, and then I had to come out the next day again and do it against a very tough opponent who has a very unorthodox game. Makes it very tricky,” Murray said. “It was not easy at all.”
Stepanek had lost all his momentum, but he got to sleep on it and attempt to reset. He did everything in his power to avoid distractions with the knowledge he only was one set from springing a stunner.
“I got last night so many messages that I gave up my phone to my conditioning coach,” Stepanek said. “I said, ‘I don’t want to see it after the match is over, because nothing is over yet.’”
The Czech served first in the decider, was refreshed, and he put a scare into the second seed. With Murray serving at 4-5, Stepanek twice was within two points of victory. But Murray hung onto his serve, broke Stepanek in the next game, and closed out his win.
“I had a great shot at 30-All: backhand down the line. I felt like I hit pretty well. I hit the top of the net. Then I had a chance at deuce playing a drop shot,” Stepanek said. “The whole match I played it down the line [and for the] first time I tried to play it crosscourt, and these are the small things which made the difference in the end.”
For Murray’s part, it was his ninth comeback from two sets down. He was elated to avoid losing in the first round of a Grand Slam for the first time since the 2008 Australian Open.
“It was obviously an extremely difficult match, very tricky, challenging. Today was pretty stressful,” Murray said. “It’s never easy playing a match over two days, especially when it ended up being just a one-set shootout really in the end, with him always ahead and starting serving… I was always having to play from behind, so it was very tough.”
In the next round, Murray also was pushed to five sets against home favourite Matthias Bourgue, which he said, “wasn’t as tense as my match against Radek”. It was the next two rounds in which Murray found his rhythm, defeating two of the biggest servers in history — 27th seed Ivo Karlovic and 15th seed John Isner — without losing a set.
His newfound confidence showed against home favourite Richard Gasquet in the quarter-finals. After a tense first two sets, Murray only lost two games in the next two to clinch a four-set victory, setting a blockbuster showdown against defending champion Stan Wawrinka. The Swiss had won three consecutive matches in their ATP Head2Head series, but Murray played what he called, “one of the better matches that I have played on clay throughout my career” to oust Wawrinka in four, making his first final in Paris
“To reach the final of the French the first time, that’s a big moment for me. It’s not an easy thing to do,” Murray said. “I never really expected to be able to do that.
To play the way that I did today after a tough start to the tournament, I was just really, really happy with that.”
Top seed Novak Djokovic rallied from a set down in the championship match to beat Murray 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 for the title. But it was still a tremendous run for Murray. After a close call against Stepanek in the first round, he became the first British man to reach the Roland Garros final since Bunny Austin in 1937.