World number two Andy Murray has major questions to answer at Roland Garros – but so do his two most serious rivals for the title, says Tuamini Carayol.
By the time Rafael Nadal ended his dialogue with the Spanish media and began to face the British press after his defeat by Andy Murray two weeks ago in Madrid, the Spaniard was openly seething. He responded to innocent questions with irritated one-word shut-downs, he shook his head, and his utter disgust radiated across the room.
But when the question of Andy Murray’s prospects for the French Open was asked, annoyance gave way to sheer incredulity.
“In Roland Garros? What you mean, because he played Roland Garros last year and lost in five sets?” said Nadal.
“He can win the title. If you were in the semi-final two times and you lost in five sets in semi-finals, it’s obvious that you can win the title, no?”
Based on logic and facts alone, it seems obvious that Murray can win the title. The Scot’s record on clay over the last couple of seasons – titles in Madrid, Rome and Munich, a second French Open semi-final, a further Madrid final and a Monte Carlo semi-final – convey a stonewall consistency beyond the limits of luck. 29 wins and just three defeats (including his Davis Cup scalps, and with his injury-provoked withdrawal in Rome last year not counting against him) give him a 91% win ratio that tops anyone else on tour in the same period. Yet on the eve of the French Open, plenty are still asking these questions.
Many conclude that the Nadal defeated by Murray in back-to-back years at the Madrid Masters – in the Spaniard’s own country, and on the surface he’s owned for a decade – was almost unworthy of his name. And there’s something in that: Nadal struggled to put forehands between the lines in their 2015 final, and he relinquished their match a few weeks ago by limply dumping a forehand into the net after one of the worst smashes his 14 year career has produced.
In Rome, there was less for the doubters to cling to. Murray played a brilliant final match to defeat the top-seeded Novak Djokovic. He continued to show off his increasingly muscular second serve; once his Achilles heel, it’s now faster and infused with more topspin, freeing him up to take more risks on his first serve. On top of that he is again demonstrating his understanding that he cannot survive against the best on clay without playing aggressive tennis, and positioning himself on top of the baseline. Those factors continue to drive his success on the sport’s slowest surface.
Yet it’s still difficult to ignore the context of his victory over Djokovic. As Murray himself pointed out, the Brit finished his mis-match of a semi-final against extremely lucky loser Lucas Pouille in Rome early, having sauntered to the final without defeating a top ten opponent. Meanwhile, after an exhausting two-set victory over Nadal the previous day, Djokovic was forced to fight deep into the night against a soaring Kei Nishikori. There was no energy from his side of the court the following day, and Murray’s victory was more mercy kill than ruthless assassination.
These are not asterisks on Murray’s great clay success, but rather a reminder of the aligning of the stars that it takes to be successful – and of what it would still take for him to achieve the ultimate victory on clay under Djokovic’s glare. But the past month has certainly made it a more realistic possibility.
After Djokovic conquered the first four months of the year and competed at a level far beyond even the hopes and dreams of Murray and the rest of the tour, the clay season has brought back far more parity than anyone could have imagined. Nadal, Djokovic and Murray split the three clay Masters 1000 events between them, and far beyond scheduling issues, Djokovic’s mental stability throughout the clay season puzzled.
Even in victory during his winning week in Madrid, the world number one threw his racquet, swore and raged even though he didn’t appear to have any reason to. Any theory that this was an isolated reaction sparked by the Madrid crowds that seem to detest his very essence was shot down when he competed through Rome in a similar mood, narrowly avoiding being defaulted when he bounced his racquet into the crowd.
Has this mental volatility during the clay season been down to Djokovic’s pursuit of the elusive French Open title? It’s an interesting question, and if the pressure really of completing the set of grand slams is genuinely weighing on the Serb’s mind it looks likely to be the main factor that could once again prevent him from lifting the Roland Garros title.
Meanwhile, Rafael Nadal has continued his steady improvement throughout the clay season. The defining lesson of a 13-match run that saw him recapture his Monte Carlo and Barcelona titles was not that he had suddenly flicked a switch and returned to his former glories; his serve retains the vulnerability it has shown for the past 18 months, while his forehand is still constantly prone to breaking down and collapsing in a heap of unforced errors. But the critical thing is that Nadal’s confidence has clearly returned, and it’s allowed him to dig himself out of holes that would have swallowed him up in previous months.
After his Barcelona title, Nadal didn’t show up for the Madrid semi-finals against Murray and subsequently failed to put the world number one away after getting a good start in their Rome quarter-final. In Paris Nadal could well find himself a victim of a tough draw that pits him against former conqueror Fabio Fognini and Dominic Thiem. But the progress, while slow and steady, is palpable, and the nine-time champion presents a dramatically more formidable sight than he did a year ago.
The first step in the stars aligning for Murray is that he finds himself far, far away from his two superiors after Nadal landed into Djokovic’s top half of the draw. Murray may still have to battle defending champion Stan Wawrinka, who finally found some form the week before Paris by winning his home tournament in Geneva. And then there’s Kei Nishikori, the real outside threat, who looms in a potential blockbuster quarter-final.
In other words, the pre-tournament storylines all hang tantalisingly in the Paris atmosphere. Questions surround all three of the main contenders for the men’s title in Paris. Only the next 15 days will answer them.