Never mind the score; ignore the rankings; don’t listen too closely to the huffing and puffing. Andy Murray, at 33, remains Britain’s best player and his fighting 6-3, 7-5 win over James Ward at the National Tennis Centre on Thursday night confirmed the core of his game – bloodymindedness – is firmly in place.
The prize is a semi-final against Dan Evans on Saturday in the semi-finals of the Battle of the Brits, the charity tournament organised by Murray’s elder brother, Jamie.
“Physically, it was a tough match,” Murray Jr said courtside. “I felt my hip a little bit but it has not really affected my movement. I think I moved the best I moved in the three matches to date. I’m delighted I’ve got a rest day tomorrow. I’m very, very tired. Wardie played well, dictating a lot of the points early on. He fought really hard. I could have returned a little more offensively, but I was trying to make him play.”
It might seem an oddity that Murray and Ward – born three months apart and long-time friends through several Davis Cup campaigns and the Londoner’s obsession with Arsenal – had never met on court. In 11 matches against home opposition, Murray has lost only twice, each time to Kyle Edmund, most recently here on Wednesday night. On day one, he beat Liam Broady handily.
Murray’s ambitions, however, are still fixed on reasserting himself at the highest level and, with the best will in a small world, this enjoyable event behind closed doors in Roehampton does not constitute such an examination. It did prove Murray is on track for a full recovery, maybe even in time for the US Open in August.
Ward, who also lost to Edmund, looked rejuvenated beating Broady on Wednesday. This was a level up from that.
Twice they traded breaks in a first set of high-grade struggle before Murray cracked the Ward serve a third time in the sixth game, which lasted nearly 13 minutes. He was accurate and ruthless serving out the frame in just under an hour.
“James is making Andy work for every point,” Murray’s coach, Jamie Delgado, said during the break – revealing he urged him to “grunt more” in big points. It seemed to work, as it has done for most of his career.
Ward had his chances as the quality dipped in the second set but, for a third time, he broke Murray’s serve and immediately handed back the advantage. Murray told Delgado on the changeover: “Don’t tell me I’m playing good tennis out there.” He was being a bit hard on himself, as ever.
Breathing heavily in the hot, moist air, Murray drew on all his lockdown fitness to break for 6-5 and sealed a semi-final place with a love hold and a cracking forehand on the run.
Evans, the British No 1 in Murray’s absence, continued his excellent 2020 form (either side of the lockdown) by beating the world No 77 (and British No 3) Cameron Norrie, 6-3, 6-3.
Relying heavily on his backhand slice on a slow court, Evans made the most of a string of easy points and finished the job with his trademark shot after an hour and a half. He beat Jay Clarke easily on day one, and this performance probably elevates him to tournament favourite.
“I played really well in a high-level match,” he said. “I see Cam all the time, we’re good friends, play doubles with him as well, so it’s not easy. The big guys can hit me off the court if I’m too far back, so I get forward as much as I can.”
Earlier, Jonny O’Mara and Joe Salisbury showed the benefit of sticking to the game’s more subtle discipline when they outlasted the pick-up combination of James Ward and Kyle Edmund 6-2, 5-7, 10-5, to go through from the Cathy Sabin Group to the doubles semi-finals.
Salisbury, the top-rated British doubles player just ahead of the tournament organiser, Jamie Murray, described the big-hitting match as “really tough”, adding: “We knew it would be. Now we’ve got to win a couple of more tough ones.”
O’Mara, seventh in the British doubles rankings, who was on the end of some booming forehands from Edmund, said: “I forgot my crash helmet today. Wardy was a great partner for him, as well.”
In an unscheduled but welcome collision of young British prospects, Paul Jubb, who replaced the injured Clarke, repaid the LTA’s faith in awarding him a pro scholarship programme in April with an impressive 6-2, 6-7, 10-6 win over Ryan Peniston, the Essex left-hander who joined the tournament when the teenager Jack Draper had to pull out with an abdominal strain.
Jubb plays Norrie on Friday for the other semi-final place in the Greg Rusedski Group. “It is a great opportunity to play a top-100 player,” Jubb said. “Those are the matches you can learn from, win or lose. I definitely back my game to cause him some trouble.”