So far this week, Andy Murray has proved that he is more than a match for most people on a clay court but today he faces the supreme test: is he good enough to beat both Rafael Nadal and 12,500 partisan Spaniards packed onto the Manolo Santana Court?
The world No 2 will today face the local hero for a place in the final of the Mutua Madrid Open at lunchtime and if he wins, his reputation as a clay court contender will be hugely improved with the French Open just a couple of weeks away.
Murray has previous in this department: he beat Nadal in the Madrid final last year, his first clay court victory over the Spaniard earning him his first Masters 1000 title on the slower surface. But the Nadal of 2015 was not the all-conquering king of clay of the past decade. He may have been free of injury – a rarity for him – but he looked lost as the defeats piled up. His confidence was shot and he was beginning to hate his time on the practise and match court.
This year, Nadal is getting back to the Nadal of old. Unbeaten in 13 matches on the red stuff over the past weeks, he is already the champion of Monte Carlo and Barcelona, and even if he stuttered and stumbled against Joao Sousa 6-0, 4-6, 6-3 yesterday, he still won.
Made to wait at 3-2 in the second set as the rain started and the roof was closed, Nadal’s rhythm was disrupted while the Portuguese spotted an opportunity. But no matter how hard Sousa pounded his groundstrokes, Nadal refused to lose in front of the stars of his beloved Real Madrid, many of whom were spending their afternoon off at the Caja Magica.
“I think he’s definitely playing better for sure,” Murray said of Nadal. “I also think I’m playing better now than I was at this time last year. You have to keep improving. There are things in my game that are much better just now than at this stage last year.
“You have to learn in every match you play against the best players. If you don’t, it’s kind of pointless really going on the court. When you get to semis or finals of slams you want to go on the court with a very clear game plan and sort of understanding of things that work against him.”
To prove his point, Murray ripped through Tomas Berdych’s defences 6-3, 6-2 yesterday and looked mightily impressive as he did so. As he had done against Gilles Simon in the previous round, he was patient when he had to be and went on the attack whenever he got the chance. And, yet again, he had his own serve in lockdown – Berdych never got so much as a hint of a chance to break.
“Obviously from my side it was a good match today. Again, no break points against me. It was different conditions playing under the roof. Adjusted to them well. That was the most pleasing thing for me: not easy conditions against a tough opponent and I played well.
“On a clay court it’s different: you have to use a little bit more variety. You need to be a little bit more patient, a little bit smarter when you’re defending, and I tried to do that today.”
It was that sort of performance that proved too much for Nadal last year but Murray is not daft: he knows that Nadal will have learned his lesson from that match and will be waiting for him today.
But the Scot thinks he is serving better this year – his second serve is a much improved shot – and simply by practising with Nadal last week in Majorca, he has honed his game to a new level of sharpness. Rather than revealing his training secrets to his old rival, Murray believes their work together merely brings out the best in both of them.
“I think it’s just more about learning about the things they’re working on,” Murray said. “Sometimes the coaches are telling them certain things but it’s not like when Toni’s on Rafa’s side of the net, it’s not like he’s telling him ‘do this to beat Andy’, it’s to try to better himself. You’re practising for yourself and, again, if I’m practising with Rafa, I’m sure it’s good practise for him, and it’s great practise for me and it’s just good to learn that way. I think in anything, if you can sort of be around and be surrounded by the best people, it raises your level.”
Quite how high that level has been raised, both he and Nadal will discover today.
Also through to the semi-finals is sixth-ranked Kei Nishikori from Japan, who edged Aussie Nick Kyrgios 6-7 (6-8), 7-6 (7-1), 6-3 in a thriller lasting 2 hours, 38 minutes.
Nishikori will today play Novak Djokovic after the world No 1 from Serbia beat Canadian Milos Raonic 6-3, 6-4 in last night’s late match.