After surviving a huge scare against Fernando Verdasco in his BNP Paribas Masters opener, Andy Murray continues his pursuit of the No. 1 ranking when he faces Paris crowd favourite and 13th seed Lucas Pouille on Thursday.
Chasing the World No. 1 ranking and a fourth consecutive ATP World Tour title at the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris this week, Andy Murray overcame an extremely tough opening challenge from mercurial former top 10 star Fernando Verdasco on Wednesday. Coming off his seventh ATP title of 2016 in Vienna on Sunday, Murray was forced to battle it out for two-and-a-half hours against Verdasco, eventually breaking deep into the third set for a 6-3 6-7(5) 7-5 triumph.
Murray somewhat cruised through the opening set, but Verdasco struck back in fearsome fashion in the second, and although the Spaniard squandered the opportunity to serve out the set at 5-3, he managed to regroup sufficiently enough to take the tiebreaker and extend the match into a decider. Not much separated the pair until 5-5, where Verdasco missed two break point opportunities that would have seen him serve for the match. Murray made him pay, holding and then breaking Verdasco to secure his spot in the third round.
"It wasn't the best match from my side. I got through it. I will play better tomorrow," Murray said. "I didn't necessarily feel comfortable out there, but I feel like the way the two of us finished the match, I was stronger at the end in the last game when I had my chance."
Murray not feeling comfortable is completely understandable and totally expected when you take into consideration his hectic last month on tour. The 29-year-old is currently on a 16-match winning streak after winning ATP 500 silverware in Beijing, an ATP Masters 1000 title in Shanghai and another ATP 500 trophy in Vienna last week. Murray has the most total match wins in 2016 with 72, which also includes titles at Rome, Queen’s Club, Wimbledon and the Rio Olympics.
Of course the primary storyline everyone is following this week is Murray and his charge towards the No. 1 ranking. Murray needs to win in Paris and hope Djokovic loses before the final, or finish runner-up and have the Serbian crash out before the semi-finals. Djokovic moved into the third round on Wednesday with a 6-3 6-4 win over Gilles Muller. For a spot in the quarter-finals, Murray takes on a man he has never lost more than three games in a set against in their two previous 2016 meetings - local hope and the constantly-improving Lucas Pouille.
"He's a big hitter. He takes chances," Murray said of Pouille. "He's quite similar to Fernando, actually, apart from being a righty. Both of them like to go for big first serves and take chances from the back of the court."
Lucas Pouille (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
It’s been an outstanding season for Pouille, who has seen his ranking rise from 91 in February to a current mark of No. 17. The 22-year-old was in with an outside chance of qualifying for the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals in London heading into Paris this week, but his shot evaporated after Marin Cilic - currently No. 8 in the race - emerged a straight sets winner over Ivo Karlovic.
Pouille’s tremendous run this season started in Miami, where he came through a late-night three-set clash with David Ferrer to reach the Round of 16 - at the time, his first career top 10 victory. Pouille then made his first ATP World Tour final on the clay of Bucharest before producing a stunning run to the Rome Masters semi-finals as a lucky loser, again conquering Ferrer en route. The Frenchman would go on to reach his first ever grand slam quarter-final at Wimbledon (beating Juan Martin del Potro and Bernard Tomic), and he would replicate that showing by advancing to the last eight at the US Open, famously toppling Rafael Nadal in five sets.
Far from done in 2016, Pouille then captured his first ATP title in Metz, defeating David Goffin and Dominic Thiem back-to-back to the delight of his home fans. It will certainly be interesting to see if Pouille will be able to back up his remarkable season next year, with the pressure of defending all those points surely in the back of his mind.
So can Pouille extend his 2016 campaign by one more match and end Andy Murray’s immediate challenge for the No. 1 ranking? He will have to be firing on all cylinders to do so. Murray has dominated Pouille in their two encounters this year, winning 6-2 6-1 in Rome and 6-1 6-3 last month in Shanghai. Pouille will have to take risks and pretty much redline his game from the get-go, with Murray’s fantastic defence proving impenetrable in their those aforementioned clashes. He’s not without a shot, but Murray is determined on giving himself his best shot of becoming World No. 1 this week, and coupled with their history, he should be able to battle his way through to the last eight.