PARIS — This is why we watch the French Open.
No. 2 seed Andy Murray, playing qualifier Radek Stepanek, a cagey veteran, somehow contrived to lose the first two sets of Monday’s first-round match. Then, in the chill of the gathering darkness, Murray rallied famously.
At 9:23 p.m., the match was suspended due to darkness.
And so we have an undeniable cliff-hanger heading into Day 3, with the 37-year-old Stepanek holding a now-tenuous 6-3, 6-3, 0-6, 2-4 lead.
Murray himself might have seen this coming. It was only eight days earlier that he produced one of the season’s greatest triumphs — a masterful straight-sets win over No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic in the Rome final.
Friday, in his pre-tournament interview, Murray was asked about the danger associated with playing a qualifier in the first round.
“It’s tough just because the conditions here are obviously different to last week in Rome, and the qualifiers have played three matches [in Paris],” he said. “That’s tough. They are probably feeling pretty good about their conditions and comfortable on the courts.
“It’s only two days out from the start of the tournament and I don’t know who I’m playing against.”
That would be Stepanek, a former top-10 player from the Czech Republic with five ATP World Tour singles titles on his résumé — although the most recent came nearly five years ago in Washington.
When play began two hours late, tournament officials immediately canceled 12 matches, most of them the fourth or fifth matches scheduled for each court. When play was suspended, there were still six matches going, including No. 15 seed John Isner, who has a history of long matches.
Murray didn’t walk out onto the court until past 7 p.m. local time. He was, predictably, flat. Stepanek, fist-pumping to the crowd and shouting as he went, raced off with the first two sets. And so, 83 minutes into the match, Murray found himself in a huge hole.
Earlier, defending champion Stan Wawrinka had his own personal letdown. Four days after beating Lukas Rosol in the Geneva semifinals, Wawrinka similarly dropped the first two sets. In danger of becoming the first defending champion at Roland Garros of the Open era to lose in the first round, Wawrinka found an equilibrium and, eventually, defeated Rosol again.
Murray, at the last possible moment, caught the same momentum train. He won all six games of the third set and was suddenly very, very eager to play the fourth. Stepanek? Not so much.
After sprinting up the locker room stairs following a bathroom break, Murray was seen bouncing up and down along the baseline, while Stepanek took great care changing his shirt. His lack of dispatch cost him a warning for delay of game.
So, who has the advantage when they retake the court Tuesday?
If the match had been suspended after three sets, Stepanek probably sleeps better Monday night. As it is, Murray is serving at 4-2 and has to feel confident he’s going to level the match fairly quickly.
Three days earlier, Murray was musing about the two different modes that qualifiers can bring to the first round of the main draw.
“The positives are that often a lot of the qualifiers maybe have not played on the bigger courts and stuff, and maybe you can capitalize a bit on that at the beginning if they are a little bit nervous,” Murray said. “But some go out there and go for it right from the beginning and feel good, so you never know.”