If Andy Murray can reproduce in the final against Novak Djokovic on Sunday the precision and patience with which he ground down the defending champion Stan Wawrinka in four sets on Friday, he has – as John McEnroe pointed out beforehand – his "best shot ever" at winning the French Open.
There were extended passages of play during his semi-final against the Swiss when Murray was irresistible. In two hours and 34 minutes on Court Philippe Chatrier, the world No 2 made just 22 unforced errors, won 79 per cent of his first serves and, apart from a tough third set, generally bossed an opponent he had not beaten since the quarter-finals in Tokyo four years and four matches ago.
It was by far his best performance of the tournament. It confirmed also that, after years of struggle, he has at last come to terms with the vagaries and challenges of clay, which have rarely been as problematic as this past drenched week.
As Murray pointed out before his 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 win, the conditions are the same for everyone. Except everyone is not Andy Murray. He is the first British man to reach the final here since Bunny Austin in 1937. Only one British player has won the men's title since it was opened to non-French contenders 91 years ago, Fred Perry in 1935. Murray has taken the former record; he is in good shape to topple the latter.
Simultaneously on Court Suzanne Lenglen, Djokovic was taking care of business putting world No 15 Dominic Thiem to the sword, 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 in an hour and 48 minutes. Nobody at the end of a championship fortnight is going to be spring fresh, but such a quick win will help Djokovic after playing on four days in a row.
“I knew today I was going to have to play one of my best claycourt matches,” Murray said. “Stan’s record here the past couple of years is unbelievable. Looking forward to the final now. I’m extremely proud. I never expected to reach the final here. I struggled on clay for years, but have had some of my best results [lately].”
Both applied quality pressure in the early exchanges, Murray breaking in the third game with an athletic backhand volley on the turn that Wawrinka could only tap from his ankles into the net.
In the seventh game, Wawrinka saved two break points, but Murray’s defence was getting to him as both players ripped their forehands at close to full power.
Murray complained to the chair umpire Carlos Ramos during the break that the Jet-cam was parking itself directly above his serve – not the first time in his career he has complained about this distraction. It did not seem to bother him in the eighth game, however.
He held to love and Wawrinka, muttering to himself as his racket went wobbly, blew a regulation smash for 15-all, but struck his first ace to stay in the set.
Murray had wasted golden opportunities against Richard Gasquet in the quarter-finals. Not this time, although it was not straightforward, predictably. They got to 30-all with some vintage stuff, moving and hitting with frightening power.
Murray missed his serve on first set point, Wawrinka punished his second for deuce and unleashed his famous backhand for break point. Murray got a time violation at just the worst time but replied with his fastest serve of the match and screamed in vindication. Wawrinka got another look, gave it back for deuce, got a third break when Murray couldn’t control a volley at the net. Murray saved with a wide serve, worked hard for another set point, and Wawrinka hit long.
As it transpired, that effort took more out of the loser than the winner of the duel. After a sustained exchange of high-quality shots at the start of the second set, Murray broke in the third game, and was bringing a level of tennis IQ to his work that Wawrinka could not handle. A second break for 4-1 was the dividend.
Now he was doing to the Swiss what he did to Djokovic in the early skirmishes of the 2012 US Open final: draining his energy by extending the point and moving him across the line. It needed a supreme level of concentration and confidence to execute, but it was all coming together for him at the right time.
Wawrinka grew increasingly exasperated, as Murray move serenely to a two- set lead. The contrast in their demeanours was striking. No screaming at the Murray box today.
At the start of the tournament Murray saved his ninth five-setter from two sets down. In the same predicament, the Swiss has got over the line six times from 24, and only once in the last 11. Leading by two sets, Murray was 136-1 over his career. All the numbers were tumbling in his favour.
There was a dangerous but damaging impatience about Wawrinka’s work as he strove to bludgeon his way back to parity, and he had to save a fifth break point in the match to stay in front in the third game of the third set. Murray remained calm under the onslaught and held to love for the second time.
Wawrinka, whose stubborness and natural strength have hauled him out of many a hole, was never going to roll over for Murray. Indeed, they are as obstinate as each other – and both owners of two majors, although the Scot’s career is more garlanded overall. This was his ninth win over Wawrinka in 16 matches stretching back to 2005 – and his first in four on clay.
Wawrinka was energised after taking a close third set, breaking Murray’s serve for the first time in the 10th game, but Murray interrupted his revival instantly, breaking him to 30 at the start of the fourth. From there to the end, when he blasted his way into the final with a concluding smash, his hand on the tiller was occasionally nervous but ultimately trustworthy.