INDIAN WELLS – World No. 1 Andy Murray’s record at the BNP Paribas Open is far from stellar.
But he remains the No. 1 male tennis player on the planet and, when faced with a qualifier in his first match, he will always be the heavy favourite.
But this particular qualifier, Canadian Vasek Pospisil, has a resumé far more glorious than his current ATP Tour singles ranking of No. 129 would suggest.
He’s a former Wimbledon singles quarter-finalist and a former doubles champion both at Wimbledon and here in Indian Wells.
With three singles wins already in the books this week through the qualifying and his first-round victory, the 26-year-old has had plenty of time to acclimate to the desert conditions. He spent much of the off-season training in, as well, as new coach Mark Woodforde lives in the area.
With a precise, aggressive game plan, Pospisil took it to Murray before a full house Saturday and came away with a 6-4, 7-6 (5) victory.
Their countryman, No. 4 Milos Raonic has yet to do it. Even though he has victories over the likes of Murray, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, none of them were ranked No. 1 when he defeated them.
“You know, I felt like a big result was coming, because I believe in my abilities, but just kind of had to put the pieces together again,” Pospisil said. “Obviously to beat the No. 1 player in the world is incredible. I mean, it’s the biggest win of my career, and I’m just thrilled right now.”
Pospisil stuck with his plan even through those dicey moments late in the second set, when he had to hold serve just to stay in the set on two occasions.
He twice came back from a break down in the first set. He coughed up an early break of his own in the second set but then held fast until the deciding tiebreak.
He served-and-volleyed more than he has of late – the way he should, more often. He charged the net on good shot selection most of the time. He was patient on the rallies when he had to be, using his slice and serving notice to the groundstroking machine on the other side of the net that he was willing to pay the price. In fact, Pospisil won 11 of the rallies that lasted nine shots of more, and lost seven. He was 27-for-44 at the net.
“I was telling myself, especially in the tiebreak, I was saying, ‘whatever the score is, I don’t want to have any regrets’. I don’t want to come out of the match thinking, ‘Oh, why did I play a passive point when I’m playing one of the best baseliners ever, you know, just loves long points?’ ”
Pospisil served hard –into the 130 mph range and up. He served at a 68 per cent first-serve clip. He hit his occasionally shaky two-handed backhand extremely consistently.
Not only that, he had what seemed to be half of Western Canada behind him in the big stadium – a huge cheering section. Some wore red. Some waved flags. And many who didn’t represent the Maple Leaf were behind him in that way tennis fans have of rooting for the underdog.
As a gracious Murray pointed out afterwards, Pospisil’s style is easy to root for. “It was a really good atmosphere at the end. And, you know, it was pretty much a full crowd after the first 15-20 minutes, so it was a nice atmosphere,” he said. “I think especially the way he was playing, I think the crowds like him. The guy was being aggressive, and he came out with some fantastic shots as well. So they really got into it.”
It was incumbent on Pospisil to try to wrap it up in straight sets. The overwhelming favourite in a match, given an escape hatch, takes it more often than not. And after a year from hell in 2016, Pospisil’s confidence isn’t at its highest. There is, however, a “buy” order for that stock this week.
For Murray, it’s another desert disappointment. If he knew why he struggled so much here, he’d have solved the issue already. So there’s little point in asking the question.
It wasn’t Pospisil’s aggressive game, even though serve-and-volleying Mischa Zverev was the one who beat Murray in Australia; Murray said he has been very successful against that style throughout his career.
“In practice here normally I play pretty well. And then some years – some years, you know, I played well. Some years it’s just, it just hasn’t quite happened for me. I don’t know exactly why that is,” he said. “I don’t know if it is the conditions here or … yeah, or I really don’t know why I haven’t played my best here over the years.”
For all the talk about the “quarter of death” in this year’s men’s singles draw (Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, del Potro, Kyrgios … only one will reach the semi-finals), it had almost been generally assumed that Murray would waltz through on his side of things.
Pospisil threw a major monkey wrench into that theory, and he plays another qualifier, the Serb Dusan Lajovic, in the third round.
With Jo-Wilfried Tsonga ousted in his 2017 desert debut by Fabio Fognini Saturday, the highest seed remaining in Pospisil’s quarter is No. 11 David Goffin.
If he can keep his cool and avoid an almost inevitable emotional letdown against Lajovic, he would face a Spaniard, either Roberto Bautista Agut or Pablo Carreño Busta.
Pospisil remains in the doubles with American Steve Johnson. He doesn’t have any matches scheduled Sunday; he’d be well served to avoid the Indian Wells Tennis Garden altogether and take the time to absorb it all.