Andy Murray will be heading into the French Open, which begins this Sunday, without being under any false pretence.
Having pulled out of the event last year to focus on his fitness and mental stability ahead of Wimbledon, that is a sign of how he generally rates his chances at Roland Garros. When taking into account his form and continued return to fitness from back surgery in 2014, reaching the second week is likely to be a realistic aim for the British No.1.
Many of the statistics speak for themselves when looking at Murray’s success on clay compared to other surfaces. His one appearance in the semi-finals in 2011, which ended in a three-set defeat to Rafael Nadal, is backed up by two quarter-final losses in 2009 and 2012. In comparison, he has reached the semi finals of the other three Grand Slams on a total of 12 occasions, and he is still waiting to add a clay court title to his 28 ATP singles titles that he has achieved during a successful career.
The success of Nadal in the French capital has in fact lead to a decimation of optimism among the rest of the pack, not just Murray. The Spaniard has only ever lost on one occasion at the tournament, winning his other 59 matches, leading to eight titles. If the Spaniard plays anywhere close to his best tennis, he leaves even the most well-informed of experts scratching their head wondering what it takes to beat him on this surface.
Novak Djokovic is missing just a French Open from his Grand Slam trophy cabinet, while Roger Federer only managed to get over the line at the clay court season’s defining tournament when avoiding Nadal in 2009, as he had been surprisingly knocked out by Swede Robin Soderling in the fourth round. The Swiss, who has won a record 17 Grand Slams in men’s tennis, was beaten by the Mallorcan on four consecutive occasions between 2005 and 2008, in a period where he won eight of his Grand Slam titles.
That shows the magnitude of what Nadal has achieved, even if he has been struggling by his standards on clay this year. The meeting between Murray and the 13-time Grand Slam champion at the Rome Masters showed that there are fractures in the nicknamed King of Clay’s game at the moment, and a fitter, more clinical Murray may have pressed home a 4-2 lead in the final set, but it did show that he is returning to form at the right time.
But it has not just been defeats to the elite of tennis that have stood in Murray’s way of success since becoming the first British male to win the Wimbledon title since 1936 in 2013. Santiago Giraldo, Florian Mayer and Milos Raonic have all caused surprises against the Dunblane-born player, which has played a part in seeing his world ranking slip to eighth, his lowest position since 2008.
His seeding of eighth should put the Scot in a strong position to make it through the first two rounds, and potential banana skins could be placed in his way for the next two matches. World number 26 Marin Cilic has caused problems for the former world No.2 in the past, as has Fernando Verdasco, who held a two set lead against the 27-year-old in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon last year and has seen his ranking rise from 45 to 25 in the last year.
Potential opponents for the fourth round include Kei Nishikori, who is on a high after becoming the first Japanese player to reach the world’s top 10, Jo-Wilfiried Tsonga, who reached the semi-finals last year, and Italian Fabio Fognini, who trounced Murray in three sets in the Davis Cup in April.
While it may be seen as an advantage if he were to be drawn against Stanislas Wawrinka in the quarter-finals, as opposed to Nadal, Djokovic or Federer, victories for the Australian Open champion in their last two meetings, including the quarter-finals of the US Open last year, would likely place him as the favourite to repeat the feat.
Any match beyond that stage would have to be seen as a bonus, given that he has only reached one semi-final on the tour this year as he continues to struggle to return from the surgery that forced him to miss the ATP World Tour Finals last year.
There is not the same overbearing emotion of expectation being heaped on Murray’s shoulders now that he has got the monkey off his back in becoming a British Grand Slam and Wimbledon champion, and he even admitted himself after his loss to Wawrinka at Flushing Meadows last year that his standards slipped after his tournament victory at SW19.
His ranking points total will improve, regardless of which round he is knocked out in, and progression to the second week would give him plenty of positives as he then puts his mind to defending his Wimbledon title.
Whether his performance in Rome means he is back to form remains to be seen, but it is likely to be Murray’s most glorious moment of all if he makes an appearance in the men’s singles final on June 8.
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