French Open: Andy Murray battles back from a set down and a back injury to defeat Jarkko Nieminen at French Open
ANDY Murray defied a crippling back spasm to record one of the most extraordinary wins of his career, 1-6, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2.
Having locked up completely in the first set, to the point where he was virtually walking around the court, he gradually began to loosen up until his opponent, Jarkko Nieminen, was the one feeling the pain.
Murray came into this tournament with chronic back trouble, which had forced him to pull out of the Madrid Masters and restricted his movement during the following event in Rome. But his latest attack was far more acute. The problem peaked in the fourth game, when he was unable even to bend in his service action, and could only pat the ball over the net like a pensioner.
"My back went into spasm, basically," Murray said after the match. "It was sore when I got up, sore when I practiced. I couldn't put any weight on my left leg, it's something that happens sometimes."
Asked whether he had considered pulling out of the tournament, he replied: "The guys were telling me to stop. We thought about it, when we were warming up we considered it. But at the end of the second set he was obviously getting a bit nervous. I thought, 'Let's give it a go, let's chase a few more balls'."
When the trainer came on the court, with the score at 5-0 to Nieminen, it appeared that a retirement was inevitable. But Murray has an enviable record of completing his matches on the ATP Tour. He has only once pulled out of a match, when he snapped a wrist tendon against Filippo Volandri in Hamburg. He carried on stubbornly, limping around the court and aiming for clean winners in an attempt to shorten the points. And then, miraculously, his condition started to improve.
You could track the progress via the service speeds he was recording. At the low point, when he was standing completely flat-footed on the court, he delivered one ball at 70mph. But then it started to climb towards three figures, before finally settling in the low 100s - not maximum speed, but fast enough to be competitive.
Meanwhile, Nieminen was going to pieces. At 6-1, 2-0 he had appeared to be romping towards the third round. But then Murray began to play more ambitiously, and the Finn lost his rhythm completely.
It is always difficult dealing with a semi-fit opponent: players find themselves unsure whether to stick to their normal game or target the areas of weakness, and the confusion can be very destructive.
Something similar happened here a year ago, when Murray turned his ankle against Michael Berrer, and Berrer later admitted that the situation "was making me so tight I couldn't really focus or think clearly".
Once Murray's legs began to move, he actually found himself striking the ball very well, even if it was difficult to change direction on the slippery clay. He won the last four games of the second set, then raced through the third in just 30 minutes. For all the early drama of the match, it turned into something of a towelling for Nieminen, and the final duration of 2hrs 27 minutes makes it sound almost routine.
It was a fine recovery from Murray, and it showed great reserves of courage, but the ITV commentator Jim Courier questioned whether it was the right decision to carry on.
"He's going to face a challenge in 45 minutes when the adrenaline wears off," said Courier at the end of the match. "I still believe he should have walked off the court, given the big picture.
"Winning this match doesn't do anything for his long-term chances to win this tournament. Physically he needs to be at 100 per cent health for what's ahead of him, not only this tournament but Wimbledon, the Olympics and the US Open.
"Coming into this tournament with a core problem, you get respect for keeping going, but in the long term you need rest. I've had a lower back problem and it doesn't help when you're turning and twisting and torquing your body.
"It needs solving and I don't know how he's going to solve it by doing this."