Andy Murray’s French Open challenge came to a sudden halt when he ran into one of the rising stars of clay court tennis at Roland Garros.
The British number one, who had looked to be conquering the red dust surface he dislikes most, slumped to a 6-3 6-7 6-3 7-5 defeat in the third round against Nicolas Almagro of Spain.
Murray had insisted he could achieve his ambition of reaching the second week here but Almagro was always likely to pose a serious threat, having won clay-court titles in Brazil and Mexico this year, beating Carlos Moya and David Nalbandian in the finals.
The 22-year-old Spaniard is ranked 20th in the world, while Murray is number 12 but on clay this was Almagro’s 28th win of the year. In contrast Murray had just seven victories on the surface.
The match was held up for several minutes before the start when a woman spectator was taken ill in the warm conditions close to the umpire’s chair.
Murray then promptly lost his first service game and Almagro proceeded to announce his talent with a series of savage forehands.
He took the set when Murray netted a tame forehand.
In the second set Murray, however, began to counter Almagro’s heavy hitting with some fine tennis of his own and it took two consecutive aces and some desperate shot-making from the Spaniard to save three break points in the fourth game.
Murray, too, had to battle, fighting his way back from love-40 down in the ninth game with two wonderful volleys to stay in the set which went to a tie-break.
Two timely aces helped Murray wrap up the breaker and it looked as if the Scot at last had got the measure of his man.
He even took the initiative in the third set when he broke the Almagro serve in the third game, the Spaniard struggling with a tricky lob and putting his response amid the tramlines.
Almagro, however, broke back, this time his precise lob doing the damage and suddenly the momentum was swinging the Spaniard’s way, his superior knowledge of the surface proving the key.
A couple of Murray volleys dumped into the net saw Almagro break again and he duly served out to take the set and control of the match.
The fourth set saw Murray lose his first service game with a wild forehand but then show great guts to break back when Almagro served for the set in the 10th game. In the end, however, Almagro’s constant pressure proved too much.
Murray can now concentrate on preparing for the friendlier grass court season and the increased expectations of Wimbledon.