Andy Murray, late clay bloomer, has usurped French Open favourite tag from Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic
In years past, you could have been forgiven for scoffing at any such suggestion, for Murray’s clay court craft had few, if any, admirers and the stats seemed to back the naysayers.
In the first 10 years of his career, the Scot had a modest 88-39 record (winning percentage 69.2) and, forget a title, he did not even reach the final of a clay court event.
He did make it to the last four at the French Open in 2011 and 2014, but his first clay court final – and title – came at Munich last May.
A week later, he beat the struggling Rafael Nadal, for so long the dominant force on clay, in straight sets to win the 2015 Madrid Masters.
Since then, believe it or not, Murray has been the most successful player on clay – better than Nadal and better than Novak Djokovic as well, statistically.
Nadal, who has won a record 49 clay court titles in his career, nine of which were at the French Open, and owns a winning percentage of 91 on the surface, is 45-10 (winning percentage of 81.8) on the dirt since the start of 2015, with four titles.
Djokovic is 25-3 (winning percentage 89.3) with three titles, while Murray is 29-3 (winning percentage 90.6) with three ATP Tour titles and, of course, the Davis Cup crown, where he won both his singles in the final on clay.
If these numbers come as a surprise to you, then you are not alone. Murray himself seems a bit amazed.
“I never expected to be having the results I have been having on clay,” Murray said on Sunday after defeating Djokovic 6-3, 6-3 in the Rome final to celebrate his 29th birthday with the second Masters 1000 clay court title of his career.
“Maybe I didn’t believe enough in myself. I always thought clay was my worst and hardest surface for me. But then last year, getting some wins against the best players made me realise a little bit. I had always been told that clay should really be my best surface, but it took me a long time to gain a little bit of confidence.
“Also I did make huge improvements in my movement on the surface, as well. That has changed my mentality when I go on the court a lot. I don’t feel like I’m off-balance anymore and I feel like I can chase most balls down. It’s an easy surface for me to move on now.”
Until the Madrid final last year, Murray was 0-6 against Nadal on clay, but he has won two of their last three duels on the dirt.
On Sunday, he beat Djokovic for the first time on clay after losing their first four matches on the surface, including last year’s French Open semis and the Madrid final last week with both matches going into the decider.
Murray, then, will be arriving in Paris next week with his belief at its peak, and why not?
“I had a great preparation now going into the French Open as well with a lot of matches,” he said. “I have played against Rafa a couple of times, Novak a couple of times.
“You know, I have not won all of the matches, but competed extremely well even in the ones I have lost.
“So I’m going to Roland Garros with a lot of confidence and really good preparation.”
On current form, he will certainly be the man to beat at Roland Garros. Nadal is not the force he once was on clay, Roger Federer might not even be there and Stan Wawrinka, the defending champion, remains as unpredictable as ever.
Djokovic, of course, is the best tennis player on the planet at this moment, on any surface. But he will be carrying that extra burden of expectations as he makes another bid to complete a career grand slam, having three times already lost in the final. That could be an advantage for Murray.
As the top two seeds, they can only meet in the Roland Garros final and, as Wawrinka showed last year, anything can happen.
So do not be surprised if Murray, the first British man to win at the Foro Italico since George Patrick Hughes in 1931, becomes the first British man to win the French Open since Fred Perry in 1935.
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Published: May 16, 2016 04:00 AM