It is common knowledge that of all the four grand slam titles, the French Open would be the hardest for Andy Murray to win but no one could ever have imagined it could be this hard.
For the second time in a week, he survived a rollercoaster five-set epic, this time beating Gael Monfils, to reach the semi-finals. And, just in case he thought he could relax, he faces Rafael Nadal tomorrow.
Murray produced another display of patience and aggression to defeat his old mate 6-4, 6-1, 4-6, 1-6, 6-0 but, again, he had to battle his way through cramp and pain to get to the finish line. He also had to beat the Parisian crowd who had packed the Court Philippe Chatrier in the hope of seeing one of their own reach the last four – and do it
before darkness fell. In the end, Murray managed it, running away with the fifth set in just 24 minutes and allowing Monfils just seven points as he swept into the semi-final.
“I’ve known Gael since we were 10 or 11 and he is a good friend of mine, so it was tough conditions to play in,” Murray said. “It was very windy, very slow and heavy in the beginning and I got off to a good start but when the wind died down, he started to play better and the shots that he was chasing down – he’s one of the best athletes out there.”
The rain had lashed down all day leaving both men to kick their heels in the locker room for hours before they got on court. Finally allowed to play at 6.25pm, Murray’s job was as much about keeping the crowd quiet as it was about putting Monfils in his place. From the moment he walked on court, he knew that he was persona non grata on the Court Philippe Chatrier.
The local hero – who now lives as a tax exile in Switzerland – was announced to cheers and hurrahs. Murray walked to his chair to a chorus of boos.
Smiling wryly at his tormentors, he knew he would be in for a long evening if he did not stamp his authority on the match from the start.
That he did by sprinting to a 3-0 lead and, even when Monfils finally woke up and broke back, it was the Wimbledon champion who was dictating most of the rallies and keeping a stranglehold on the match.
He had warned just before he got on court that he would have to be patient and take his chances when the presented themselves – Monfils is not the sort of player to take unnecessary risks with, particularly not on a slow and damp court in a cold and blustery wind.
“He loves to defend and the worst thing you can do is get impatient and try to hit through him,” Murray said. “You have to pick your shots and try to come forward at times.”
He followed his own instructions to the letter in order to secure the first set, while the crowd sat on their hands and looked glum. From time to time, there was a Monfils shot to cheer or a Murray error to jeer but, for the most part, the Scot was keeping a lid on French expectations.
Since he had surgery to repair the damage to his ailing back, Murray has been free once again to play almost any shot he likes. There is a freedom in his movement and a new venom in his shots.
His backhand, the shot that flummoxed and frustrated one and all in the first half of his career, is now back to its best and he is revelling in his ability to do what he likes with it. The more Monfils played to it – and why he would wish to try such a ploy was a mystery – the more Murray was like a kid in a sweet shop. What would he do with it next? Place it or wallop it? Cross court or down the line? With slice or with spice? And whatever he did with it, Monfils was the last to know as he ran from side to side and up and down in chase of shadows.
By this point, Monfils seemed ready to throw in the towel. He played like a plank for most of the second set and looked like a man who wanted to be somewhere else.
And then, in the space of five minutes, the match turned around. “La Monf”, as he is known, got every single one of his 15,000 close friends who all appeared to have tickets to yesterday’s match involved in proceedings. He staved off three set points on his own serve – cue roars of delight from the stands – and then made the most of Murray’s misfortune in the next game.
As the Scot served for the set and with the score at deuce, he was midway through a rally when the spare ball fell out of his pocket. The umpire, Jake Garner, called for them to stop and replay the point but Monfils had other ideas.
As he ambled over to the umpire’s chair and had a chat, the crowd jeered and whistled. As they discussed the minutiae of the rules, Murray tried to quieten the crowd by conceding the point and handing a break point to the Frenchman. Sure enough, Murray won the set but suddenly Monfils was revitalised and the crowd realised they had a job to do to get their man through to the semi-finals.
Egging the crowd on, Monfils began to play better, run faster and torment his old friend from their junior days. As a Mexican Wave rolled around the stands, the umpire could no more control them than Murray could make them love him.
Just to make matters worse, Murray’s legs were beginning to turn to lead just as they had in his five sets against Philipp Kohlschreiber at the weekend. Coping with a rampant Monfils and a hostile crowd while his quads tightened up and his left hamstring twanged with every lunge and slide was proving almost impossible.
Two sets slipped away from him and as the light faded, he thought he would be done for the night at 2-2. When the supervisor, Stefan Fransson, told him to play on, Murray responded with “that’s ridiculous!” but play on he did, running away with the final set in the gathering gloom and setting up tomorrow’s appointment with Nadal.