Does one win over a tired and grumpy Novak Djokovic on a wet Sunday in Rome mean that Andy Murray will win the French Open? Of course not. But does that win in the Italian Open final give Murray the belief that he has the clay court game to lift the trophy at Roland Garros? Oh, my, yes.
For the past six months, Murray has established himself as the second best player on the planet, second only to Djokovic. The two have been more consistent on every surface than any of the chasing pack and as the French Open starts today, they are seeded to meet in the final. To get there would be an achievement for Murray – he has never before reached the final here – but he wants more than that. Much more.
Beating Djokovic has been the impossible dream for everyone for much of the past three years as the Serb has hoovered up the major titles. For Murray in particular, getting the better of the world No.1 has been all but impossible: three years, 14 matches and only two wins.
But it was the manner of his victory in Rome that gave the Scot the greatest cause for optimism: no matter how angry Djokovic became, how often he complained and growled at the umpire about the conditions, Murray just got on with the job, never wavered from the game plan and notched up his first clay court win over his old rival in five attempts.
“I did a good job,” Murray said. “I stayed solid the whole way through. Any time there was danger, I handled those situations well, I was pretty calm, made good decisions under pressure and that’s what you need to do on clay. I didn’t rush any of those points, I was nice and patient, my serve was huge for me, not just last week but through Madrid as well. I need to serve well to beat the best players but I’ve made big improvements on that side of things and hopefully it keeps going that way.”
Murray turned 29 last weekend – his Rome title was his best ever birthday present – but at a stage in his career where others are finding it hard to change and adapt, he is relishing the challenge of learning new skills. Last year brought him his first clay court titles (Munich and Madrid) and this year he has improved again. Always looking for any tiny adjustment that can give him an extra edge, he believes that this year could be his best at Roland Garros. The first goal is to reach the final; the real goal is to win.
“It would be great,” he said. “I’m a long way from doing that. That is what has been nice for me the last couple of years in the clay season. I have been doing stuff I’d never done before on this surface, so it was nice at this stage in my career to achieve things that I’d never done and maybe thought that I wouldn’t. Like the Davis Cup, for example. That was something I never, never thought we’d do and that made it more special.
“Winning in Rome – I’d had some terrible times there over the years with injuries, with my back, so to win there was amazing, one of my nicest wins, I really enjoyed that. This is the only Slam I haven’t played the final of, so if I could do that, I would have played in the final of pretty much all the major events in tennis bar Monte Carlo, I think. It would be nice, but I’m not here just to reach the final.”
To win the final would mean playing as well as he did in Rome and better. But Murray has a new and improved second serve this season and that has bolstered his defences dramatically. It may not be the sexiest shot in the world but an impregnable second serve is what made Pete Sampras unplayable in his pomp and it is what gives the serial champions that cushion of confidence to go for their first serve.
“It’s easy to say: hit the second serve harder, but you need to have the technique to be able to do that,” Murray said. “I have made some changes to my technique, quite significant ones that maybe don’t look as big, but significant changes that help me mentally. When I go to serve I don’t think I’m going to miss if I serve at 100 miles an hour, I think I’m going to make it every time. So it’s really important for me.”
What is also important is having his family around him. As they were in Rome, his wife, Kim, and daughter, Sophia, are in town and the stern-faced competitor in Murray relaxes as soon as talk turns to fatherhood.
“She’s a lot more smiley than me, that’s for sure,” he said of his daughter. “I try to be home every night for bath time. I do as much as I can to help. Every week it’s getting better, easier. We have adjoining rooms so I sleep next door during tournaments, but even when we’re back home she has been great. No complaints!”
Fulfilled and happy away from the courts and playing the tennis of his life on them, Murray will have no complaints at all if everything goes according to plan in the next two weeks – even if he does have to play that man Djokovic again in the final.