Fabio Fognini was the latest entertainer to take on Andy Murray on the Centre Court stage but the fiery Italian went the way of his two flamboyant predecessors as his opponent maintained his remarkable record of consistency here at the All England Club.
Murray secured his place in the second week of the tournament for the 10th year in succession but needed to dig deep into his reserves of mental strength to see off Fognini in a contest that provided rich entertainment for the Centre Court crowd. Murray won 6-2, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5, but only after taking a remarkable fourth set in which he trailed 5-2 and had to save five set points.
Fognini, a spectacular shot-maker who had won three of his previous six meetings with Murray, dominated for periods of the match before the Scot secured his place in the last 16, where he will meet France’s Benoit Paire, who beat Jerzy Janowicz 6-2, 7-6, 6-3.
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While Fognini can be brilliant on clay, the world No 29 has never gone beyond the third round here. However, on this occasion he produced one of his best displays on grass. There were times when Murray was not at his best, but the Scot showed all the gritty determination that has taken him to the top of his sport to record a thrilling victory.
To add to Fognini’s woes he is likely to face a hefty fine for hurling his racket into the Centre Court turf in a moment of frustration, for which he was given one code violation, and a later obscenity, which cost him another violation and a point. The 30-year-old Italian has previous here: three years ago he was fined $27,500 (about £21,300) for outbursts that included racket-throwing and an audible obscenity.
“When you’re playing someone who has all of the shots like Fabio it’s difficult,” Murray said afterwards. “He generates power with very short swings. It’s difficult to see when he’s going to hit the ball big. He was taking me out of my rhythm.
“It was also getting dark towards the end. We probably would have had to come off while they closed the roof had I lost that fourth set, so you’re thinking about that a little bit as well. There would be a change of conditions and a 20-minute break to think about things before playing a fifth set, so I was obviously pleased to get off in four.”
Britain started the day with four players left in singles competition, which was the highest number of home players into the third round for 20 years, but by the end of it that number had been cut in half. Defeats for Heather Watson and Aljaz Bedene meant that home hopes will now rest with the two British No 1s, Murray and Johanna Konta, who beat Maria Sakkari in straight sets.
After earlier starts in his first two matches, Murray found himself back at his customary start time as the final match of the day. It was after 6pm when the two men went on to Centre Court, half of which was in shade at the start. The temperature was still a balmy 25C, but there was a stiffer breeze than there had been in previous days.
Murray, who had beaten Alexander Bublik and Dustin Brown in straight sets in his first two matches, started confidently, hitting two aces in the opening game, and went on to take the first set with something to spare in just 29 minutes.
Fognini, looking much too casual, dropped serve in the sixth game thanks to four forehand errors, though that was nothing compared with the way he lost the set. Serving at 2-5 and 0-15, he hit three successive double faults to hand Murray the early advantage.
Murray’s supporters would have been hoping that the Scot would drive home his advantage, but the second set brought an unexpected shift in momentum. While Fognini served much better and grew in confidence, Murray started to struggle.
Fognini broke at the start of the set before throwing his racket to the floor in frustration at dropping his own serve in the following game. However, the Italian recovered his poise to break again to go 3-2 up and went on to serve out for the set and level the match.
Some of the zip had been missing from Murray’s game in that second set and at the start of the third the world No 1 appeared to make a conscious effort to raise his intensity as he bellowed out his pleasure at holding serve in the opening game.
When Murray hit a service winner to go 2-1 up Fognini tweaked his right ankle in going for his return. The Italian’s movement appeared to be impaired as he dropped serve in the following game and at 4-1 down he took a medical time-out to have the ankle strapped. Murray, nevertheless, broke again, this time to love, and then took the set with two successive service winners.
Fognini’s growing frustration was evident in the fourth game of the third set. After Murray had gone 40-30 up, Damien Dumusois, the umpire, handed Fognini another code violation for an obscenity, which cost the Italian a point and the game.
At this stage everything seemed to be going Murray’s way, but the Scot was broken when he served at 2-3. After netting an attempted drop shot to give Fognini his second break point of the game, Murray double-faulted to hand the initiative back to the Italian.
With the time approaching 9pm and the light fading it was likely that the match would have been stopped to allow the roof to be closed if the match had gone to a fifth set, but Murray was in no mood to let it go to a decider.
At 2-5 Murray saved two set points with service winners and in the following game the Scot broke back in remarkable fashion. Fognini had two more set points, but on the first Murray won a drop shot exchange and on the second the Italian stopped in the middle of a rally to contest a line call, forgetting that he had already used up all his challenges.
The tension showed no sign of dropping in the next game as Murray again served to stay in the set. Fognini had a fifth set point, only to hit a forehand beyond the baseline, as the Scot levelled at 5-5.
Now it was Fognini’s turn to be put under pressure and the Italian was found wanting. Having saved one break point with a bold forehand into a corner, he netted a forehand on the second to give Murray the chance to serve out for the match.
The world No 1 did so in some style, winning the game to love with a booming ace. Murray’s roar of celebration at the end told you everything about what this victory meant to him.
“The end of the match was tense,” Murray said afterwards. “It was a tight game when I broke him at 5-5, but I served out really well to finish. It was a very up-and-down match. I didn’t feel like it was the best tennis at times. It was a little bit tense today but I managed to get through.”
Asked how his body felt after such a grueling encounter, Murray said: “I feel OK. I didn’t feel like I moved as well as I did in the first couple of matches, but I’ve got a couple of days’ break now where I can work on that and hopefully get myself in a good rhythm over the weekend and come out and play some good tennis on Monday. I’m obviously happy to get through the first week and anything can happen from there.”