PARIS – For two sets it was a classic. For all of its 4 hours, 4 minutes it was pure drama. In the end Andy Murray was the winner, Richard Gasquet the hero, and the sun-burned crowd packing Court Suzanne Lenglen at Roland Garros went home with memories of a match they will never forget.
The score of 4-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-1 is revealing for several reasons. First, Murray is never daunted at the prospect of needing to come back from two sets to love down. He had done it three times before and one of them, significantly, had been against Gasquet on Wimbledon's Centre Court in 2008. Gasquet, even at the best of times, is hopeless in five-setters. He has now lost nine out of his last 10.
And this was not the best of times for the Frenchman. He came into the match hurting from a knee problem he picked up while beating Fernando Verdasco in the final of the ATP event in Nice on Saturday. And that followed a title-winning performance at a Challenger in Bordeaux. So he had played 10 matches in 13 days and was, basically, exhausted.
Was the French Federation sympathetic? Mais, non! Gasquet's request for a Tuesday start was turned down and there he was, walking out to play Murray, who has played precious little tennis over the past few weeks and is as fresh as a daisy, on a hot afternoon under cloudless skies.
But none of that seemed to matter as Gasquet went hammer and tongs at the Scot, ripping his ground strokes with blistering power and mixing it up with delicate drop shots, great serving and that sublime one-handed backhand which is one of the great strokes in the game. To his credit Murray hung in there, enjoining Gasquet in some great rallies and making good use of the drop shot himself.
It was a feast of clay court tennis, laid out for a discerning audience that appreciated every stroke. Murray's defensive qualities were stretched to their limit and, having been under pressure on his serve several times in the first set, he finally cracked when he put a forehand volley into the net on set point.
The second set produced more of the same, although it became clear that Murray was not going away. In fact, the world No. 4 had a break point himself at 2-2 and was pushing the Frenchman all the way to the tie break. It was obvious that Gasquet desperately needed to win the set because any serious momentum change would leave poor Richard struggling both mentally and physically.
Still, he battled on and grabbed the opportunity Murray handed him when the Scot double faulted at 3-3 in the breaker and then put a backhand long. Gasquet, roared on by the crowd, eventually nailed it 7-5 and seemed to have a real chance of victory.
But fatigue was setting in and errors started to flow. Not that the quality of the contest lessened that much. Both players still came up with amazing winners and when Gaquet broke for 3-2 in the third it seemed that he might just have enough left in the tank.
Murray, though, was not going to let go. Two sets and a break down? "OK, that's a bit steep but we'll handle it." seemed to be his attitude, and he broke back immediately by forcing the Frenchman to miss off his previously immaculate backhand.
Gasquet fought on but with ever decreasing potency and, in the end, he had nothing left to offer. It had been a great fight and we will be lucky if we see clay court tennis of this quality again in these championships. Winners are hard to come by on clay courts, but not between these two -- Murray came up with 64 winners and Gasquet 69.
While all this was going on, there were signs that Americans are no longer a pushover on clay. You might not pick Taylor Dent, one of the last serve-and-volleyers, as a poster boy for that theory, but the muscular Californian came through impressively 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 against the veteran Ecuadorian Nicolas Lapentti.
And Dent was not alone. John Isner looked just as comfortable while thumping Andrey Golubev 6-4, 6-2, 6-2.
"We're definitely getting better on clay," said Isner. "Sam (Querrey) and I decided to come over here for the long haul. This is our fifth week. I think it's going pay dividends at this tournament."
It will pay dividends for one American or the other on Tuesday when Querrey goes against fellow countryman Robby Ginepri -- a match that big Sam will be expected to win but with Ginepri, you never know.
Dent, meanwhile, was joking about the reputation Amercians have on clay: "We've got the label of not being much good," he said. "It's like -- Oh, you're American. First round. See you later. So there's nothing more Americans love than to come over here and win matches."
It was Dent's first victory at Roland Garros as a pro, although he had played here as a junior. He spelled out the difficulties a player of his style faces.
"Today, the conditions were great for me in one way because it was hot and dry," Dent said. "The downside was that the footing wasn't great. Somebody like me who tries to stand up on the baseline -- it gets a little tricky if I have to defend too much. Then I look like a snail out there. The core of my game is the volley and the slice and that's not really what's needed. But I thought I did well and came through against a really experienced clay courter."
For, the Americans, the message must be, "More of the same, please."