A ball in the back, a dead bug impression, a thrown towel, and a lot of chuckling. All part and parcel of a match against the man they fondly call “nuts.”
Serving and volleying relentlessly despite being picked off at the net more often than not, flinging himself across the service box, hacking the back of the ball like you’d attack a piece of cheddar, Michael Llodra may not have presented much of a challenge to Andy Murray, but he certainly made it viewable.
Dressed like he was playing at Wimbledon rather than Melbourne Park, LLodra refused to be swayed from his traditional style on the gusty environs of Hisense Arena, despite the fact that Murray knew exactly how to play it.
Fashioning three break points in the opening game, and then breaking in the third, agent Orange had a few wobbly moments on his own serve, but pulled an ace of out his pocket when he needed to.
Seemingly fairly evenly poised after the first set, Murray set off at a canter in the second, breaking to start, chasing down effort after effort from the now knee-strapped Frenchman and giving the Hisense Arena crowd, English, Scots, Welsh and Irish among them, every reason to drown out the cheers from the next-door MCG.
He may have been a wee bit worried when one of his drop shot retrievals bulleted straight into the small of Llodra’s back. Would the Frenchman, who once took all his clothes off (bar his underpants) and threw them into the crowd, explode? He came out with a mock Zidane headbutt instead.
If the first two sets were entertaining, the third was an exhibition. Bending a ball round the net post from behind the umpire’s chair on one occasion, scampering up to the net on many occasions, Murray took 23 minutes to drop a bagel on his opponent, who could only throw his towel in mock disgust.
Forty-eight winners to Llodra’s 18, 11 unforced errors to the Frenchman’s 23, it was a an excerpt from the textbook of winning effectively. Almost most impressive were his net figures. 23 out of 27 net approaches made, which, remembering that most of them were at a sprint from the baseline, shows the merits of all that work in the offseason. Note to self.
“It was a tough set and a half, a tough match,” Murray said afterwards. “He put a lot of pressure on my serve, came to the net a lot. [I] saved quite a ew games where he had breakpoints. Once I got up a double break in the second, we played a lot of entertaining rallies, fun points. I played well. So it was enjoyable.
“My movement was way better than the first two matches. I moved great tonight. That’s a good sign for me ‘cause when I move well, the rest of my game goes well. That was the most pleasing thing for me about tonight.”
The only worry among the doom-and-gloomers is that Murray is perhaps peaking a little early. Dangers lurk in the form of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Novak Djokovic, who had even easier strolls in Melbourne Park today.
But before pondering on them, Murray must first get past Mikhail Kukushkin, the curly-haired Kazakh who survived his own choke to beat Gael Monfils in five.
Coached by his wife, and a Russian by birth, Murray faced Mikhail on the first rung of his climb to the Brisbane title two weeks ago, a three-set scuffle that befitted his first match of the year.
“He was very good when I played him,” Murray said. “The first six games he was unbelievable, he hardly missed a ball. He was hitting the ball huge, going pretty much down the line on every shot and cleaning lines.”
Llodra, though, doesn’t think Murray will have too much ado.
“He play so well from the return,” the Frenchman said. “The passing shot today was amazing. I try my best. With Andy, if he’s playing like that, it’s going to be a big fight.”
For once, Llodra's not being nuts.