Andy Murray’s chequered start to life as the world’s top player continued with a first defeat to Dominic Thiem, the talented ninth-ranked Austrian, in the semi-finals of the Barcelona Open.
Murray, still feeling his way back on to the Tour after more than a month on the sidelines with an elbow injury, was beaten 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 in two hours and 13 minutes. In a match defined by the ups and downs of an opponent whose searing power frequently overshadowed his consistency, Murray fought back from a subdued start but was ultimately edged out by Thiem in a tense finale.
If it was not the outcome that Murray had hoped for, he can at least reflect on a week of solid progress following an inauspicious start to the clay-court season at last week’s Monte Carlo Masters. As for Thiem, through to the seventh final of his career on the red stuff, his first win over a reigning world No1 will be cause for encouragement as he seeks to build on last year’s run to the French Open semi-finals.
As in the previous round against Albert Ramos-Viñolas, his surprise conqueror in Monte Carlo, Murray quickly fell behind. He dropped serve in the opening game, a tentative drop shot perhaps betraying early doubts in the face of some ferocious hitting from Thiem, and the setback set the tone for the remainder of the set. The Austrian’s superior confidence, power and movement earned him two further breaks and, although Murray clawed back the first courtesy of a Thiem double-fault, he rarely looked comfortable.
The Scot sportingly conceded the opening set when another thumping Thiem drive, mistakenly called long, sent him scrambling fruitlessly to his forehand corner. The umpire, Fergus Murphy, called for a let, but Murray generously indicated he would have been unable to put the ball back in play. The top seed soon gave the lie to any suspicion that he was in benevolent mood, however, surviving break points in the first and seventh games of the second set as a nip-and-tuck contest unfolded, more in keeping with their previous two meetings.
The second of Thiem’s two missed chances, which came and went when he lashed a forehand long, seemed to afford Murray a significant boost as he sought to make it three wins in three. Lingering disappointment appeared the only explanation for the glaring errors that followed, the Austrian missing a sitter at deuce in the next game before screwing a forehand wide.
Serving with greater bite and consistency than he had in the opener, when barely half his first deliveries found the court and he won just 17% of the points behind his second, Murray quickly evened the contest. But a rapid exchange of breaks in the opening two games of the decider signalled that the younger man, a semi-finalist at Roland Garros last year, was not about to go away.
So it proved. Thiem rediscovered his early form to move a break ahead and although Murray levelled the match at 4-4 the 23-year-old was not to be denied. He held to move within a game of the final and converted his first match point with a well-judged topspin lob that left Murray flailing.
Thiem will face Rafael Nadal, the winner of the second semi-final. The third seed and nine-times champion defeated Horacio Zeballos of Argentina 6-3, 6-4.
There was better news for British tennis as Aljaz Bedene secured a place in the final of the Hungarian Open with a straight-sets win over Laslo Djere. The British No4 forced two early breaks to take charge of the opening set and went on to close out a 6-2, 6-4 victory in one hour and 19 minutes.
The win was a 16th in succession for Bedene, who secured back-to-back titles on the second-tier Challenger Tour before coming through qualifying in Budapest. Bedene upset second seed Ivo Karlovic in the quarter-finals.
Bedene, 27, was ranked outside the top 100 at the beginning of March, but his winning run promises a return to the top 50 for the Slovenia-born player. In the final, his first on the ATP World Tour since 2015, Bedene will face Lucas Pouille of France, the top seed and world No14, who beat Italy’s Paolo Lorenzi 6-2, 7-5.
When Maria Sharapova began her comeback from a 15-month drug ban in Germany this week, she may have imagined she was returning to the same sporting landscape she left behind at last year’s Australian Open. Kristina Mladenovic, a third-round loser at that event, invited her to consider a rather different reality with a 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 win in their Porsche Grand Prix semi-final in Stuttgart.
While victory would have secured Sharapova’s eligibility for the qualifying competition at next month’s French Open, the former world No1, twice champion at Roland Garros, will now have to rely on the goodwill of Bernard Giudicelli, the French federation president, who talked of the need to “take the right decision” after meeting Sharapova in Los Angeles recently.
Giudicelli will deliver his verdict on 15 May, which should give Sharapova ample time to reflect on this defeat to Mladenovic from a set and a break up. It initially seemed there would be only one winner as Sharapova, who had reached the last four without dropping a set, broke in the fourth game and served flawlessly to see out the opener.
Yet Mladenovic, ranked 19th, has been one of the best players on the Tour this year, winning her first WTA title in St Petersburg, reaching the final in Acapulco and claiming a semi-final place at Indian Wells. She was never likely to be content with a bit-part in the unfolding narrative of Sharapova’s return and, once she belatedly began making inroads on the Russian’s serve in the second set, the momentum slowly began to turn.
“Maria is a tough player, she is very aggressive from the first shot,” reflected Mladenovic at courtside afterwards. “It was not an easy match, but I just tried to fight and it paid off.
“We all know that she has a long career behind her, a lot of experience … but I had my chances and I fought. The most important thing for me was to return her serve – it was really not easy, and that was the key for me. Eventually I managed to put some returns back, put pressure, and be in the rally.”
Awaiting Mladenovic in the final is Laura Siegemund of Germany, the world No49, who upset fourth seed Simona Halep 6-4, 7-5.