TIME is a precious commodity and, as Andy Murray trudged home from the French Open on Friday night, he knew he had precious little of it.
The grass court season begins in earnest tomorrow and he has two titles to defend. Worse, he has – as always – the hopes and ambitions of 60 million countrymen sitting on his shoulders.
The manner of his defeat by Rafael Nadal in the semi-final of the French Open was both surprising and devastating. For all Murray’s experience and talent, he could not make a dent in the champion’s defences – the first point of the match looked promising for Murray but it was all downhill after that. Nadal’s forehand, dripping with topspin, hit every line and every corner and, even if Murray got within touching distance of the ball, he found it bouncing high above his shoulder – he never got so much as a toehold in the match.
Nadal gave him a hiding and he was frustrated, disappointed and numb after it was all over. He could find no answers to the questions that were fired at him. Why had he played so poorly? How could he have played so well against Nadal just three weeks before and yet surrender so tamely on Friday?
Between now and his opening match at the Aegon Championships at Queen’s Club on Wednesday, he will have to find those answers although, on grass, the odds favour Murray rather than Nadal. Clay is the Spaniard’s specialist surface, grass is Murray’s.
“It’s completely different playing Rafa on grass because it is impossible for the ball to bounce that high,” Murray said. “It is also easier to get free points on your serve and grass favours the person who hits the flatter ball. That is why it is completely different.
“Yes I would like to play him on the grass, for sure. That would mean going deep into the tournament. Someone told me I would be seeded in the top four now, so that would mean getting to the semi or the final. So, yes, I would like to play him soon.”
Revenge in SW19 would certainly be sweet, but Murray still has to get to that semi-final or final in order to give himself the opportunity to exact it. Grass and clay courts are polar opposites and the switch from one to the other is immediate. As soon as he got home, Murray was planning his first practice session on the green stuff but still he had to shake off the memory of that defeat in Paris.
“I would expect to speak to the guys over the next couple of days,” he said. “Whether it is today or not, I am not sure. Sometimes speaking immediately after matches can help, sometimes leaving it a couple of days can help as well. Sometimes you don’t need to talk about matches, sometimes there is nothing really to say. So I am sure I will speak to them in the next couple of days. I don’t know. Maybe I get on the court again tomorrow, maybe on the grass courts tomorrow, maybe I wait a few days. I am not sure. I’ll wait and see how I feel.
“That’s how you have to play it a little bit. I don’t know how I’m going to feel when I wake up tomorrow, physically and mentally. I hope over the next two or three days I will able to look back on a positive tournament. It’s just disappointing right now.”
Scrabbling around to find some upside to the events of the last few days, at least Murray could fall back on his physical progress. His run at Roland Garros gave him six best-of-five set matches in 11 days – he has not played that much tennis at that level of intensity since he had back surgery last autumn. And he came through the challenge unscathed save for a few tired and aching muscles. That was something positive to take away from Paris.
“Clay is the surface I had the most problem with on my back,” Murray said. “Grass is fairly straightforward when I’ve been having problems with my back. That’s a positive and I know my back is going to be fine for the next few weeks.
“I thought I did a fairly good job this week of recovering from the matches and dealing with the five setters. I had not played any for quite a long time. Well, since Wimbledon. It’s very different playing best of five to three setters so that is good.”
What should also lift Murray’s spirits is the welcome he will receive both at Queen’s and at Wimbledon. Murray has always been greeted with affection in south west London but this year he will go back as the conquering hero, welcomed with a sense of national pride. Murray is the Wimbledon champion and Murray is ours. To win Queen’s again would certainly boost his confidence but, while a decent run there is important to the crowds and the tournament organisers (who include Ross Hutchins, Murray’s best pal and the tournament director), it is not at the very top of his list of priorities. It is what happens a few miles down the road in two weeks’ time that really matters.
“It is important but the thing is, the better you do at the French Open, the harder Queen’s becomes,” he said. “You really only have a couple of days to get used to the grass again and get ready for it. So it will be a tough time for me but, hopefully, when Wimbledon comes around I will have had enough time on the grass. I’ll have had a few matches at Queen’s and will get ready for a fun few weeks.
“I expect to play well at Wimbledon. I’m really looking forward to going back. I think it will give me a lot of positive energy. I’m glad I’m back playing to a level that was able to get me through to the last stage of slams. I just need that extra few per cent so that I can give myself a chance to try to win them again.
“The grass will obviously help me. It’s a surface I have always enjoyed playing on. I think it’s been my most successful surface over my career. I’m really looking forward to Wimbledon especially, you know. It’s only two‑and‑a‑half weeks away, so I don’t have too long to wait.”
And if Murray has any doubt about his ability to shake off Friday’s defeat, he only has to think back a couple of years to remember the remarkable and restorative effects of a bit of jingoism and a decent grass court can have.
In 2012, he went from being the emotional and crushed losing Wimbledon finalist to becoming the nation’s darling and the Olympic champion – and all in the space of a few weeks. Now that the clay court season is over, anything seems possible again.