In 18 days’ time, Andy Murray will begin his ninth French Open campaign and attempt to conquer the slow red dirt which has flummoxed generations of British hopefuls. But this year, the world No 2 will march on Paris in the firm belief that he can actually win.
He will be 29 years old when he reaches Roland Garros – which seems a little late to be learning new tricks but, after winning his first clay-court titles last season in Munich and Madrid (where he beat Rafael Nadal in the final), he now believes he can mix it with the best on what was once thought to be his weakest surface.
“Expectations for me have changed a bit on this surface,” he said. “I have a bit more belief in myself and think that the French Open is a much higher possibility than it was. Quarter-finals, semi-finals was a decent or good result for me on clay whereas now I personally don’t view it like that. I think I can do better. I’ll give it a good shot in a couple of weeks.”
Murray is back in Madrid to defend his title and, after an awkward opening encounter with Radek Stepanek on Tuesday night, he plays Gilles Simon today. The 31-year-old Frenchman is ranked No 18 in the world and has been locking horns with Murray since 2007 but, in 15 meetings, he has beaten the Scot only twice. And on the two occasions they have met in the Spanish capital since the event moved to clay courts, Murray has emerged the winner.
Whatever the result today, it does not really matter in the general scheme of things. Murray’s focus is the French Open, Wimbledon, the Olympics and the US Open. That said, this tournament has fond memories for the Scot and this is where he proved not only to his peers but, more importantly, to himself that he could win important titles on a clay court.
“When I was younger, I thought more about defending points and defending titles a little bit more,” he said. “Whereas now I know what my goals are, what I want to try and achieve and I’m not so caught up in week-to-week performances. I always look a little bit longer term.
“You can play well and lose at this level but, obviously, I would love to try and win again, it was one of my biggest achievements – I think anyway – in tennis. For someone who wasn’t particularly good on clay to have won my first big title when I was 28, 27 years old was a good effort and I’ll try and do it again this year.”
A good run in Spain can only help his chances in France, too. Murray needs to reach the final this week to hang on to his No 2 ranking, a place in the pecking order that would give him the second seeding at Roland Garros and a little extra protection as he tries to make it through the draw.
The biggest obstacle in his path this week is that man Nadal who is seeded to meet Murray in the semi-finals. And Nadal is playing a good deal better than he was this time last year.
Even so, if Murray does lose his ranking place to Roger Federer, his closest rival, he has the Italian Open next week to make up lost ground. Last year, Murray played only one match in Rome before pulling out with fatigue so only earned 90 ranking points while Federer reached the final and has to defend 600 points. There is still plenty of tennis to be played before the French Open begins.
“I think the No 2 seeding does help,” Murray said. “It’s not necessarily essential but it helps for sure and obviously Roger didn’t play here, I think Rafa’s obviously still got an opportunity to pass me as well so it’s important in the next couple of weeks that I play well, go far and hope that they don’t do so well. Because that makes things a bit easier for me. But we’ll see what happens.”
Women’s world No 5 Victoria Azarenka withdrew from the Madrid event yesterday due to a lower back injury.
The two-time Australian Open champion was set to meet American Louisa Chirico in the third round but the latter was given a walkover.