As the rain tipped down over Paris, it was the oldest joke in town. To anyone of a British persuasion, the locals grinned, pointed to the leaking skies and announced that we must be feeling right at home. Humour, clearly, does not travel well.
But for Andy Murray, a man whose formative years were spent in the damp climes of Dunblane (the other gag du jour is that Scots don’t tan, they rust), it was not a bad day at all. He was settled into the quarter-finals of the French Open with, he hopes, three matches left to play this week. The top half of the draw, led by Novak Djokovic, is a round behind and with the forecast looking grim, they will be kicking their heels in the locker room and praying for a break in the clouds to get their campaigns back on track.
The schedule says that Murray will play Richard Gasquet today; the meteorological office reckons he won’t get on court until tomorrow. Either way, Murray knows what to expect. The world No 12 is of the same generation as the Scot – they are both 29 – and they have played each other ten times. Murray has triumphed in seven of those encounters, and has won all four of their grand slam meetings, including two dramatic fightbacks from two sets down. After the first of those, at Wimbledon in 2008, Murray turned to the TV cameras and flexed his biceps – once criticised for lacking stamina and strength, he was now fit, strong and winning big matches. He has been winning like that ever since.
“I don’t remember it too well,” Murray said. “It would have been about eight years ago now – a long, long time ago. It was an important win for me, coming back from two sets down against a player as good as him is not easy and that has helped me in a couple of matches I have played against him since then – he knows I am always going to be fighting against him till the very end and even when he is in a winning position I can come back. Those matches have been important, for sure.”
But that match was in front of a packed house in SW19. The crowd was backing him every step of the way. When he faces Gasquet, the roles will be reversed: Gasquet will be the home-town favourite and Murray will be the villain of the piece, doing everything in his power to spoil the Parisians’ party. They are a tough crowd at Roland Garros, too. Even when they are supporting a player, they can turn in an instant if they do not like his attitude. One queried line call can ruin what had been a beautiful relationship.
“It is obviously a tough atmosphere but it is a great atmosphere as well,” Murray said. “It does help you to focus and concentrate and I think a little bit more. I imagine it will be packed when we play and that has helped me in the past.
“I also use that to my advantage. I don’t mind it when the crowd is against me – most of the time I have handled that pretty well. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything in a couple of days’ time – I need to beat Richard, I am not playing against the crowd. I need to go out there with a good game plan and it is about being able to execute it under extreme pressure and extreme atmosphere. Hopefully I can do that.”
Murray is an old hand at these sorts of matches. Dating from the Australian Open of 2011, Murray has reached the last eight in all but one of the 22 grand slam events he has played (his one blip was losing in the fourth round at the US Open last year). And just for good measure, he has won his last 14 matches against opponents playing at their home grand slam.
By contrast, Gasquet has taken 13 attempts to reach his first Roland Garros quarter-final and this is only the fifth major quarter-final of his career. The French section of the press room is buzzing as the media frenzy builds: France has a home-grown challenger for the title. As a result, Gasquet is about to experience a little of what Murray has lived with for a lifetime at Wimbledon.
“I know obviously what that is like,” Murray said, “and the further you go in the tournament the more questions you get asked about it. I think this is his first time in the quarters here so he is going to be motivated and pumped for that. He had a very good win today [over Kei Nishikori] so I expect a really tough match and a tough atmosphere so I need to be ready for that.”
The miserable weather will not have helped either man in his preparations – tennis players do not like any disruption to their regular routines. But at least the rain has given Murray time to do a little laundry.
The Scot always says that he is not superstitious but his choice of kit in the first week indicates otherwise. When he started his opening match against Radek Stepanek, he was wearing a white shirt. And then he lost the first two sets. He changed into a black shirt and won the match. He began his next match in the same black shirt and was dragged into a five-set rollercoaster. He only turned that match around when he changed back into the white shirt. Since then, he has stuck to the white shirt and has not dropped a set.
“I will probably stick with it for now,” he said before getting back to the serious business of the day. “I am starting to play better. I am feeling more comfortable than I was at the beginning of the tournament. Hopefully I will keep getting better.”
A clean shirt, a good record against Gasquet and a habit of beating local heroes at the home grand slams: it may have been raining in Paris but all in all, it was looking bright day for Murray.