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Route opens up for Murray as rivals fall by the wayside

When Andy Murray first arrived in the Spanish capital to prepare for the Mutua Madrid Open, his heart must have sunk:

Maria Sharapova fought back in the final set to earn a win against Christina McHale. Picture: Getty Sport
Maria Sharapova fought back in the final set to earn a win against Christina McHale. Picture: Getty Sport

Roger Federer in the quarter-finals, Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals, Novak Djokovic in the final and a host of other awkward customers to boot.

However, Djokovic pulled out a couple of days ago with a sore wrist, Federer announced yesterday that he was staying at home with his pregnant wife, Mirka, who last night gave birth to their second set of twins, while Nadal has failed to win a European clay court tournament this year.

Federer's place in the draw has been taken by Lukasz Kubot, the Pole who is ranked No.78 in the world, and has opening up Murray's section as a result of the draw and putting a completely different complexion on his week in Spain.

Murray will begin his campaign today against Nicolas Almagro, the big, feisty, powerful Spaniard - and the last man to beat Nadal, upending him in the Barcelona quarter-finals 12 days ago. Yesterday he appeared to be struggling with a foot injury as he huffed and puffed his way past Andrey Golubev 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, finally converting his 11th match point.

The Spaniard has beaten Murray on clay before but that was six years ago at Roland Garros. Taking on the world No.8 at altitude where the ball fizzes and flies every which way will be a different prospect entirely.

"It's a different match for sure," Almagro said. "If I need to take a surface to play against Andy, I prefer to play on clay and in Spain here with all my supporters. Everything here is perfect to play against Andy. But we will see; he is a really good player, he's one of the top in the world and it will be tough.

"It's really difficult to play here in Madrid because of the altitude. The ball flies a lot. But it's Spain and I'm very happy to be here and play against Andy."

The Spaniard refused to be drawn on the exact nature of his injury but, when he was not carefully flexing his legs after long rallies, he was giving his coach grief and chucking his racket about. Suffice to say, Almagro was not a happy man.

"I don't want to tell you what the problem is," he said. "I won but I didn't play well. I want to improve a little bit to play against Andy and we'll see what can I do. I am working hard to be healthy to play but we will see in the match."

Fabio Fognini will perhaps require a strong constitution too given that the ATP are expected to invite him for a quiet word following a spat with match umpire Mohamed Lahyani in his first-round match with Alexandr Dolgopolov. Fognini won the match 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 but disputed one line call during the third set and claimed that the Lahyani would be "in trouble" were the No.13 seed to go on to lose to his opponent.

Maria Sharapova showed a greater temperament as she staged a late fightback to maintain a winning streak on clay in Madrid. The eighth seed won the title in Stuttgart two weeks ago but looked in real trouble at 4-1 down in the deciding set in her second-round encounter against Christina McHale.

An early exit would have been costly for Sharapova, who made the final last year and is battling to stay in the top 10 of the rankings. The Russian would recover just in time to win five straight games and register a 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 victory against her American opponent.

"After a really good start I didn't keep that level," said Sharapova, who will meet former US Open champion Sam Stosur next. "I didn't keep doing what I was doing. I think I had a bit of a let-down. [McHale] is a good competitor, she won't just give matches away, she works really hard out there."

Elsewhere in the women's draw Australian Open champion Li Na overcame Zheng Jie 6-2, 6-3, while Sloane Stephens, the No.16 seed, battled to earn a 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 victory against qualifier Petra Cetkovska.

The return to the routine of competition has perhaps jarred a little for British players mourning the death this week of Elena Baltacha. Heather Watson is one of the players charged with building on the legacy of Baltacha - who would surely have made more impact at grand slams but for a series of illnesses and injuries - and Watson marked her own return from injury with victory yesterday in the first round of a second-tier ITF tournament in France.

The British No.3 had not played since losing to Virginie Razzano in Miami in March - a match in which she had to serve under-arm at times due to a shoulder problem. Watson also struggled with a rib injury but put her troubles behind her with a win over Giulia Gatto-Monticone.

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