The long road back from Melbourne agony takes Andy Murray to French clay
Published Date: 23 May 2010
By Alix Ramsay
SLOWLY BUT surely, bit by bit, Andy Murray is coming back to life.
• Digging deep: Andy Murray is determined to do well on his least favourite surface.
Photograph: Getty Images
The long road back from the bitter disappointment of losing the Australian Open final to Roger Federer is at an end and now the world No 4 is eager for the start of the toughest six weeks of his year.
Today the French Open, the only grand slam of the four that Murray is not expected to win, gets under way. From here, he heads straight back to the grass courts of London to defend his Queen's Club title and launch his Wimbledon campaign. Wimbledon is where a nation hopes and prays that Murray will do well; Roland Garros is a French oddity, a place where, traditionally, the Brits do not fare well.
But if the clay is not particularly suited to Murray's style of play and the pundits are not tipping him for success, the man himself is still expecting to do well. Murray does not do defeat. Not happily, at any rate.
"I want to try to win the tournament," he said confidently. "It's just a bit different to the other ones where I am not necessarily one of the favourites to win. It's a little bit different for me going into it, but I am still very, very excited. These are the tournaments that make your career, the ones you're probably going to be remembered by and that's why you want to play your best in them and give a good account of yourself.
"I'm going to have to give everything to each match physically, and obviously play very good tennis to do that. That's really all I want to do. I was happy with the way I played in Madrid a few weeks ago. I'll try and play well again here. If I do that, I'll be happy."
The Madrid Masters was the fist sign of real progress as Murray tried to work his way out a slump in form. He reached the quarter-finals there nine days ago and fought tooth and nail to get the better of David Ferrer. He did not succeed but it was not for a want of trying or a want of understanding about what he was trying to do on the slow, red brick-dust.
If his game settled down in Madrid, his mind had settled a handful of weeks earlier in Barcelona. Coming back from the Miami Masters after losing his opening match, he went back to basics. Barcelona is where he learned his tennis as a teenager and that is where he returned to rediscover the passion and the fire that had made him one of the best players on the planet.
"I spent a week there and was practising twice a day," Murray said. "I was going to the gym every day and just got away from everything. It was nice just to be away. I've always trained best when I've been abroad – when I've trained in Miami, when I've been over to Spain to train – I've always feel like I've practised better and, yeah, that just kind of refocused me. I knew I had to work on some things. It is as basic as working hard, hitting loads and loads of balls, getting yourself in a rhythm again. For me, I get a lot of confidence from feeling good physically and working hard in the gym and that's what I did over there. I felt a lot better because of it."
But if Murray is as prepared as he can be for the physical and mental challenges ahead, he can do nothing about the luck of the draw – and he has been handed a draw that can best be described as hellish. Kicking off with Richard Gasquet, his path to the semi-finals – his scheduled finish according to the seedings – could include meetings with Juan Ignacio Chela, Marcos Baghdatis, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Should he deal with that little lot, he should find himself in the last four and facing one R Federer of Switzerland, the world No 1 and the defending champion.
In Australia, Murray found just the right balance between attacking play and patience to reach the final for the loss of only one set. But once he got there, he faced Federer – again – and hesitated slightly. And he who hesitates against the Mighty Fed is a goner.
In the past, Murray's counter-punching style has driven Federer to distraction but, then again, his new attacking style had swept him through the rounds to get to the final. What to do? And in that moment, Federer ran away with the match.
Andre Agassi made a career out of beating the odds and surprising people. His first grand slam success came at Wimbledon, the tournament he had studiously ignored for years, and he then dragged himself from the wilderness to reinvent himself in his late 20s and complete his career Grand Slam by winning at Roland Garros in 1999. As he surveyed the field in Paris, his only concern was that Murray may have too many options.
"Murray's game has been off the hooks at times, but I don't know if he believes in himself as much as he should," Agassi said.
"Did his loss to Federer in the Aussie Open final take the life out of him, or will it make him better? That's his choice.
"I thought this was going to be his year to break through and take over and he has the game to do it. But sometimes, if you depend too much on your wheels, you don't step into court with conviction and you shouldn't wait for someone to lose when you get into big matches. He needs to rely on what he can do offensively, rather than what he prefers to do, which is to counter-punch."
Murray does not intend to counter-punch against Gasquet. They last met at Wimbledon in 2008 when the Frenchman was on the verge of victory and serving for the match in their fourth round encounter. But then Gasquet froze, Murray pounced and it was Scotland's finest who advanced to the quarter-finals. He has no intention of cutting it so fine this time but, should Murray find himself in a corner, he thinks the memory of that great escape can only help him. "It'll definitely give me hope that if I am behind I can come back," he said.
Apart from the usual aches and pains that go along with playing on clay – Murray's right knee is always sore after weeks on the dirt – the Scot is ready for the next six weeks. The workload is daunting but the rewards can be spectacular.
"It is a great time," he said. "You have the French, the chance to take a little break after Wimbledon, so you can focus real hard for the next five, six weeks, get yourself in good shape and focused on the tournaments and that's really all that matters for the next few weeks."
Winning at Roland Garros might be asking a little too much, but a decent run in Paris might just make winning in SW19 seem a little more possible.
2006: lost in first round to Gael Monfils
THIS was Andy Murray's introduction to the French Open and it was a brief one.
Drawn against the Frenchman Gael Monfils, left, he was up against another young player and one with amazing stamina and the vociferous backing of the partisan Parisian crowd.
The pair had met just weeks beforehand in the ATP Hamburg Masters and Murray had won that one in straight sets but, on the clay of Roland Garros, they contested a gruelling five-set battle and, this time, Monfils emerged victorious 6-4, 6-7, 1-6, 6-2, 6-1.
It was a tough encounter for the 19-year-old Scot, who had been prone to backache and cramp due to the fact his spine was still not fully grown and he needed treatment for pain in his lower back early in the third set. He later admitted he had considered pulling out but had feared he was getting a reputation for being injury prone and lacking fight so decided to see out the game. Despite taking a two-sets-to-one lead, he eventually succumbed to Monfils after three hours and 42 minutes.
2008: lost in third round to Nicolas Almagro
HAVING missed the 2007 French Open event due to a wrist injury, Murray returned to Roland Garros seeking to improve on his one previous showing there. Again he was drawn against a Frenchman in the opening head-to-head and had to battle hard to overhaul Jonathan Eysseric in five sets. Victory afforded him a meeting with the established clay-court specialist Jose Acasuso in the next round but Murray made light work of bettering his opponent. Looking relaxed and confident he conceded just four games on his way to a straight-sets triumph and secured safe passage into the third round. But there he met Nicolas Almagro, right, whose CV suggested he was far more at home on the surface than the Scot. In a high-class encounter which saw the momentum swing back and forth, it was the Spaniard who was able to see out the match in four sets, eventually winning 6-3, 6-7, 6-3, 7-5.
But Murray was undaunted. He maintained it was a work in progress. "To win against me on clay is a very good result," he said."I'm not someone who's going to be taken lightly on this surface in the future. I'm going to be one of the top players on clay in a couple of years. I just need a bit more experience, a bit more strength and a bit more understanding and I'll be up there with the best players."
2009: lost in quarter-final to Fernando Gonzalez
MURRAY'S best ever showing when he became only the third British man in the modern era to reach the French Open quarter-finals and underline his own assertion that he is an improving force on the dirt surface. Beating Juan Ignacio Chela in the first round, he had to battle back from a mid-match slump against Potito Starace in the next tussle and although he lost 11 out of 13 games in the second and third sets to gift his rival the second set and leave himself trailing 5-1 in the third, he regained his composure and his fighting qualities and responded by putting together a run of six games which allowed him to win not just that set but, ultimately, the match, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5, 6-4. Next up was Janko Tipsarevic and although he had the potential to cause problems, the Serbian retired injured with Murray already two sets ahead. That took the Scot into the fourth round for the first time and there he met Croatian Marin Cilic. Murray refused to mess about, showing a focus and tenacity that the 13th seed couldn't live with. Having made just 14 unforced errors all match, the Scot progressed to the quarter-finals to play Chilean Fernando Gonzalez, left.
But that's where it all ended, when one of his opponent's good days clashed with one of the Scots more ragged performances and he was overpowered 6-3, 3-6, 6-0, 6-4.