Now comes the true test. Today, Andy Murray will try to do what only one man has ever done before – beat Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros.
For the past decade, Nadal has owned the French Open and only Robin Soderling has beaten him – and even then he needed the champion to be injured to stand a chance (the Spaniard’s knees were shot and he did not play again for another three months). Court Philippe Chatrier is Nadal’s kingdom. Nadal is the King of Clay. And Murray has to find a way to beat him.
Three weeks ago, the two met in the Italian Open quarter- finals and, for two-and-a-half sets, Murray had Nadal worried. But, leading 4-2 in the final set, he played a poor service game, let his lead slip and ended up losing. No matter, he discovered then what works against the all-conquering Spaniard on the slow, red dirt and he thinks he can build on that today.
“I definitely learned some things that in that match,” Murray said. “It was quite clear in my head, as well, what was working and what wasn’t. It was different conditions to here and a different court, different balls and stuff. When we played in Rome it was extremely cold. It was raining and it was wet.
“I have been told it was meant to be 25 or 26 degrees on Friday. So conditions change, which makes a match slightly different, as well. But there are some things I learned in that match that hopefully I can use to my advantage.”
There is a quiet air of confidence about Murray this week. He came through the nerves and the scraps of the first week and pushed his way into the latter stages of the tournament. His last two matches – against Fernando Verdasco and Gael Monfils – have been impressive. He has found a way to attack on the clay and yet, at the same time, to control his natural, aggressive instincts and be patient when needs be. Patience may be a virtue but it requires an awful lot of running on this surface.
By reaching the semi-final, Murray has created a little bit of history. Since the open era began in 1968, only nine other men have reached multiple semi- finals at all the major championships and, alongside his current rivals in Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, Murray now stands with the likes of Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Boris Becker. That’s good company but he wants more. Much, much more.
“The hunger is there,” he said. “That’s not something I have to worry about it. 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. Rafa is definitely the best, you can’t compare anyone with what he has achieved. But the hunger is there, the desire. I’ll give it everything I’ve got.
“I don’t want to go into loads of detail but I have very high expectations of myself and I put a lot of pressure on myself to play well at these events and these are the tournaments that drive me to train and I put a lot of time and effort thinking about them and getting ready for them and my goal is to try to win these events every time I come to them.
“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 and play a great match and see if I can beat him.”
Murray has beaten Nadal five times in 19 meetings but never on clay. On the dirt, the Scot trails 5-0 but, as the years have gone by, Murray has learned the ways of the clay-court game and the matches have been closer. Three years ago, they met at the same stage of the French Open and Nadal won in three tight sets but, since then, Murray has won two grand slam titles. Against a fellow grand slam champion and in the semi-finals of a major championship, Nadal knows to expect a battle royal.
“I’m not impressed the way he’s playing on clay,” Nadal said carefully. “I am not answering in a bad way. I’m saying in a good way. He can play very well on all the surfaces. It’s nothing new that he plays very well on clay. I always say he’s able to play well on all surfaces if he really wants to do it.
“It is not the first time he’s in the semi-finals of Roland Garros. I’m not surprised Andy is in semi-finals. He’s a candidate to win Roland Garros. Before the tournament he was a candidate to win Roland Garros for me, so it’s not a surprise.”
When he first came back to the tour after back surgery, Murray knew it would take several months to get back to his best mentally and physically. Winning Wimbledon last summer had taken a huge emotional toll – a lifetime’s goal finally achieved, a nation’s desperate hopes finally realised – and three months off after the operation left him ring rusty and, mentally, a little vulnerable. But although he did not state it publicly at the time, the plan was always to be ready for Roland Garros. If he could be at his peak here, he would have a chance on the clay. And if he did well in Paris, defending his Wimbledon title would seem all the more possible.
Even so, he now takes on the indefatigable Nadal. No matter how many titles Nadal has won or what he has been through to succeed, the hunger and the desire to win every point of every match never seems to fade. Even a champion as great as John McEnroe cannot believe how bright that competitive fire burns in Nadal.
“Andy showed that desire against Philipp Kohlschreiber towards the end,” McEnroe said, “but that’s Philipp Kohlschreiber. That’s not Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic.
“Last year when Nadal played Djokovic here, you were thinking: ‘The guy has won it seven times. How the hell did he figure out a way to want it almost as much if not more than a guy who has never won it?’ But somehow he did that.”
Murray’s two grand slam trophies are proof that he can win the major titles. His performances this week have given him the belief that he can win on clay and the desire to win – that is plain to see. But will it be enough to dethrone the King of Clay? Murray, like the rest of us, will find out this afternoon.