THE jitters have been shaken off, the doubts have been erased and Andy Murray is a new man.
As he surveys the tall and imposing obstacle known as Gael Monfils standing between him and a place in the French Open semi-finals, he is excited, happy and relishing the opportunity.
When Murray arrived at Roland Garros, he was not sure what to expect. He had only played two clay court events, his form had been patchy all year and he had not played a match on the French clay in two years. No wonder, then, that the nerves were jangling before Murray faced Andrey Golubev in the first round.
He was a little better against Marinko Matosevic in the next round but the five-set, two-day marathon against Philipp Kohlschreiber was physically taxing and emotionally draining. But, when he took on Fernando Verdasco on Monday, at last he was back to his aggressive and tactical best.
Now he can breathe again – he is through to his 13th consecutive grand slam quarter-final and his 19th in all. Murray said: “The beginning of the tournament is always tricky. I hadn’t played loads of matches coming in and I hadn’t been here last year, I was a bit apprehensive. I really wanted to do well. After I got through against Kohlschreiber, I settled down a little bit and was able to play more freely against Verdasco, more aggressively.
“In the quarters, if I play as I did today, I will give myself a good chance of winning.
“These are the tournaments that, ultimately, I want to peak at, I want to play my best tennis at, they mean a lot to me. To play your best tennis and have your most consistent results in the biggest tournaments is what you want to do as a player so I’m happy with it.”
A year ago, when Murray was forced to miss the French Open, his back was in agony. Of all the surfaces, clay hurt him the most with its high bounce and uncertain footing causing him to twist and move in ways that sent a searing pain down his left leg. He had put up with the pain for more than two years but, when he watched tapes of himself as a younger man, he realised there were shots he simply could no longer play. Surgery was the only option.
Now, almost fully recovered from that operation – he has never revealed the details of the procedure – he can play freely again. And he is revelling in his ability to use his backhand again. Always a shot of laser-guided accuracy, now Murray can place it, wallop it or feather it without pain and, as a result, he is using it with abandon.
“The way I’m hitting my backhand now is ten times better than it was last year, and moving to that side as well is so much better than it was,” he added.
“There were periods this year when I had some problems, but that is to be expected with surgery and it’s starting to get better slowly and I’m close to being back to 100 per cent. That’s exciting for me – especially at this stage of the year.
“I was in a lot of pain for a long time – daily. It was frustrating, tiring.
“You go through a lot of different emotions. At times it can make you very angry because I normally enjoy all the training but there were periods when it would become difficult. I’d try to push hard and it would hurt and so I’d have to ease off and I couldn’t get myself into the shape I wanted to be in so hopefully now I’m over the worst and so long as I keep monitoring it and doing all the right things with it, I’ll be fine.”
If he plays today the way he played against Verdasco, he might just well be fine against Monfils, too.
Murray loves the big stages and the big-match atmosphere and taking on the exuberant and unpredictable Frenchman on his home turf for a semi-final berth in a grand slam has really whetted his appetite.
He and Monfils go back a long way. They first played each other in a junior event in France when Murray was just ten and the Frenchman was 11.
Even then, Monfils was the entertainer and Murray was the quietly confident tactician.
“He used to play with glasses,” Murray recalled. “He had sort of like a shaved hair, but like quite a high cut.
“Yeah, he was the same as he is now. He was just a great athlete, moved unbelievably well, smiling on the court.
“He enjoyed playing in front of a crowd, even though it was a small crowd. When you’re ten, 11 years old, playing in front of 40, 50 people feels like it’s loads. He’s just always been a great entertainer and he’s great for the sport.”
On the professional circuit, Murray has won three of their five matches although they have not met in four years.
On clay, they have played twice with honours even, although it is eight years since they have done battle on the slow, red dirt.
But the past will count for little today. Murray will have the wind in his sails after that Verdasco win while Monfils will have the crowd on his side.
“I like to play in Paris,” Monfils said. “I grew up here and I just feel great here. It’s different energy. It fits me very good.
“For sure it will help me if I have big decision in the match or I feel tired or maybe I’m down, for sure they will help me a lot.”
Whether the crowd can help Monfils beat a rejuvenated and relaxed Murray, will be revealed this afternoon. The new man against the old enemy.