IF A week is a long time in politics, it can seem like a lifetime in tennis. In the handful of days it took Andy Murray to collect his bags and leave Madrid and then settle himself into Rome for the Italian Open, he changed completely.
From playing – and losing – one of his worst matches in years against Santiago Giraldo in the Spanish capital and leaving with his heart in his boots, he was ready again to challenge the best in Italy. And but for one poor service game in the third set, he had the beating of Rafael Nadal in the Italian Open quarter-finals. This was more like it; this was better than like it – this was some of the best clay court tennis Murray had ever produced.
On the back of that performance, he is now approaching the French Open with a new hint of confidence in his voice. Having missed the event last year due to his bad back, he is fresh and excited about the two weeks ahead of him and, putting it simply, he is glad to be back. His efforts in Rome proved that his tennis is still in good nick; lasting three sets and almost three hours on the most taxing of surfaces proved he was physically in good shape while pushing Nadal to the very limit whetted his appetite for battle again.
“Rome was a good step forward,” Murray said. “I need to build on that, take confidence from it, and I need to try and keep that consistency for the next four or five months if I can. It was a good match for me. It was good progress in Rome and, obviously, the goal here is to keep that going and remain at that level as often as I can for the rest of the year. But right now I’ve got a big focus on these next couple of weeks, and hopefully I can have a good run.”
That run will begin against Andrey Golubev, the Russian-born Kazakh who has steamed up the rankings in the past 12 months. From a standing start outside the world’s top 200 at the beginning of May last year, Golubev is now ranked No 55 in the world and just last month he beat Stan Wawrinka in the Davis Cup quarter-finals. Then again, the only time he played Murray was back in 2008 in the St Petersburg final and managed to win just two games. “We played when he was just coming through,” Murray recalled. “He’s obviously been playing on the tour pretty much ever since then. He’s had some good wins. He’s a very dangerous player, big forehand, goes for his shots, he doesn’t hold back. When he’s on, he’s a very tough guy to beat. But his form has been a bit inconsistent I think just because of his game style, really. He plays exciting tennis, goes for big shots, and when he’s on, makes it very difficult.”
The draw will also make it difficult for Murray should he negotiate the early rounds in Roland Garros, with Richard Gasquet pencilled in for the fourth round, Wawrinka in the quarter-finals, Nadal in the semis and then Novak Djokovic in the final. Murray, though is not looking that far ahead. After the patchy season he has had so far, he cannot be sure of how he will play from one week to the next.
The plan had always been to be back to his best by this point in the calendar. Everyone in Murray’s team knew that it would take time to recover from the back surgery he had last September and as he took his first steps on the comeback trail at the start of the year, he was not expecting too much. He was certainly not expecting the split from Ivan Lendl, his coach and mentor, in March or the effect it would have on his form and mood in the following weeks.
“I was fairly happy with the start of the season, with how I responded from the surgery in Australia,” Murray said. “I thought I did pretty well there. I thought I played a fairly high level in the quarter-finals against Roger and physically, probably endurance‑wise, I wasn’t quite ready to go the whole way there. And then Davis Cup was fairly good for me. But since then it was very patchy. Some good stuff mixed in with some bad tennis.”
Murray is not alone in his struggles: Nadal, astonishingly, has won only one tournament in the European clay court swing, Djokovic has been struggling with a wrist injury and Roger Federer is learning to cope with life as a doubles specialist after his wife, Mirka, presented him with a second set of twins three weeks ago.
No one is in pole position for a tilt at the title, yet Murray is not taking that as a cue for an outbreak of overwhelming optimism; the French Open still poses his sternest test on the circuit.
“Normally when the tournament starts, whether Rafa has been playing well or not, I would expect him to play great tennis here,” Murray said, refusing to play down the eight-time champion’s chances. “I would expect Novak to play great tennis here. Roger I would also expect to play very well. That’s what they have done.
“So there is nothing there to suggest that they are all of a sudden going to stop performing well in the slams and struggle. I would expect them to all have great tournaments. But who wins depends who plays the best at the end of the event really, and we don’t know that because we can’t predict the future.”
He is also wary of predicting an early end to his coaching issues. A couple of weeks ago, he thought he would have found a replacement for Lendl by now. A week ago, he was keeping his fingers crossed that he could find a coach by the start of Wimbledon. As of yesterday, he was making no promises but there was a hint that he was inching towards finding someone to guide him in his search for more grand slam titles. “Hopefully I’m fairly close,” he said. “I wouldn’t expect anything over the next few days obviously. But, yeah, I’m closer than I was in Rome.
“For me it’s not about rushing into something, it’s about getting it right, getting the right person. Until that’s the case, you know, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing with the guys I’m working with.”
If his match against Nadal in Rome is anything to go by, the team is doing a perfectly good job of keeping Murray on track, coach or no coach. And if he can maintain that sort of form for the next couple of weeks, the French Open could be a very happy hunting ground for the Scot. That is what a week in tennis can do for a chap.