Andy Murray looks to have found his feet on clay

Scot can beat vulnerable Rafa Nadal to reach French Open final

Andy Murray: “I have very high expectations of myself. I put a lot of pressure on myself to play well at these events. These are the tournaments that drive me to train.” Photograph: Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Andy Murray: “I have very high expectations of myself. I put a lot of pressure on myself to play well at these events. These are the tournaments that drive me to train.” Photograph: Dan Istitene/Getty Images

 

At the start of this French Open, one name was consistently ignored in discussions about who might emerge as champion: Andy Murray.

The Scot, supposedly still reeling from his recent split with Ivan Lendl and working his way back to full health after a back operation, had not rediscovered the form that won him Wimbledon in 2013, it was agreed, and, anyway, clay was not his preferred metier.

All of this sounded reasonable to everyone but Murray. And there was no more perfect example of his single-minded cussedness than the final 24 minutes of his quarter-final against Gael Monfils in the gathering gloom of Court Philippe Chatrier on Wednesday night. Having blown a two-set lead, with his body crying for relief and his mind all over the place, he steeled himself for a quite astonishing statement of intent, blasting the Frenchman off the court almost without reply in front of his stunned home fans and booking a semi-final meeting with Rafael Nadal today. Never tell Murray he is beaten.

He was mildly affronted when it was suggested in the post-match press conference that he might have been well pleased to get this far in the tournament, given the odds against him. Later, as the Roland Garros staff went about their business of closing down the facility not far short of midnight, Murray expanded on the theme. “I don’t want to go into loads of detail,” he said, “but I have very high expectations of myself. I put a lot of pressure on myself to play well at these events. These are the tournaments that drive me to train.

“I’m in a good position right now. I would have signed up for this position at the start of the tournament. I’d rather [be playing] someone else than Rafa, but it’s a great opportunity for me to go out there and play a great match and see if I can beat him.”

And he can. For all that Nadal remains the pre-eminent clay-courter of this or any other era, and eight-times conqueror of Paris, he has been vulnerable several times this season. This was most recently and spectacularly demonstrated in Rome against Murray, who bewildered him in the quarter-finals, taking the first set 6-1 before giving up a 4-2 lead in the third.

That start was the highest quality tennis Murray has played all year, matched only for intensity by his crushing of Monfils. If he can reproduce a combination of both of those performances today, he will reach the final – and there a dream scenario would have him facing Ernests Gulbis for the title in a battle of appalling haircuts and the most entertaining tennis on the circuit.

Gulbis has been a revelation over the first 11 days here, building to an irresistible pitch to dump the sixth seed Tomas Berdych out in straight sets in the quarter-finals. He will give Novak Djokovic nightmares in the first semi-final, also today.

Championship hunger

Despite some saying Murray has lost the championship hunger that lifted him to his slam triumphs, the Scot doesn’t agree. “The hunger is there,” he insisted. “I believe 100 per cent I can beat Rafa and Novak, but on this surface it’s harder for me than other courts because it’s not my best surface and they are two of the greatest clay-court players in my opinion. Rafa is definitely the best. You can’t compare anyone with him, with what he has achieved. But the hunger is there, the desire. I’ll give it everything.”

As daunting a challenge as it is, it might be a good time to catch Nadal on his home patch. It is the first time the Spaniard has arrived at these championships with three clay defeats on his record, and just the one title. Before he crushed an unusually passive David Ferrer on Wednesday, he struggled.

It will be the toughest match of Murray’s season, but, having missed this tournament last year through injury, he will not lack for reasons to give his all.

There is another unspoken incentive that might be driving Murray: the desire to prove to Lendl he can win a slam without him. And how that would make him smile. Guardian Service

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