Even two years ago, Murray would never have believed that he could be in this position. Until he had surgery to repair his aching back at the end of 2013, he physically could not deal with the pressures of clay court tennis. And until he spent a solid two weeks working on his movement on the red dirt at the start of the clay court swing last year, he could not cope tactically with the slower surface. He knew what he wanted to do but he could not be sure that he would get there in time to do it.
That training block last spring was the key to Murray’s newfound success on clay and now, reinvented as a dirt-baller and playing the tennis of his life, he is in the final.
Standing in his way is Novak Djokovic – isn’t he always? – but for once, the pressure is on the other bloke’s shoulders.
Djokovic refuses to admit that winning the French Open has become an obsession but it is the only grand slam trophy to have eluded him. He desperately wants to complete his career Grand Slam so that he can be mentioned in the same breath as the true legends of the sport, the Roger Federers, the Rafa Nadals, the Rod Lavers and Fred Perrys. And that, Murray believes, could be the Scot’s greatest weapon today.
In 2013, Murray ended Britain’s 77-year wait for a home-grown Wimbledon champion. Serving for the title that would turn him into a national treasure and a domestic sporting legend, he held three championship points. Moments later, he was fending off break points and was sweating at the thought of being dragged into a five-set dogfight with his oldest rival: he had been within touching distance of his dream and now it was being dragged from his grasp. Panic set in as his mind raced and his heart pounded.
That final game only took a matter of minutes but it felt like a lifetime to Murray and now, as he attempts to turn Djokovic’s French Open dream into a nightmare, he knows he must instil those same fears and frustrations into the world No.1.
“Everyone handles pressure differently,” Murray said. “The way that game turned out is what made it so nerve-racking. I actually felt fine at the beginning of the game but then when you lose a few match points, you start to think about it. It’s really my job to make it as difficult as possible for him so that hopefully he has a few doubts, which all athletes get, at different stages.
“When I have played my best tennis, it has been to try to make every point really tough and long, and extend the rallies as much as I can, and not give anything for free. Because the best players, when you do get free games, it’s nice. The more you can make any of the top players work, the better, and I will try to do that at the beginning of the match.”
That was a lesson he learned the hard way in the Madrid final a month ago. Then, he started slowly, allowed Djokovic to take the lead and he was playing catch-up for the rest of the match. He won a set and was toe-to-toe with the Serb in the closing stages but by then it was too late. A week later in the Rome final, Murray had learned from the experience and had his foot on the throttle from the very first ball to win in straight sets. And on Friday, against Stan Wawrinka, he had exactly the same attitude and mentality and squashed the fight out of the defending champion in four sensational sets.
It will be the 34th meeting between the two men with Murray winning only 10 times. But the head-to-head that really matters for the Scot is their grand slam final stats: Djokovic leads there, too, 4-2, but it is a much narrower margin. Djokovic, the world No.1, the 11-time grand slam champion and now a four-time finalist at Roland Garros is the obvious favourite but this time Murray is not quite such an underdog, not if he plays as he did against Wawrinka on Friday.
“It’s another grand slam title up for grabs for both Andy and myself,” Djokovic said. “One thing for sure that I know that I can expect when I get on the court with him is it’s going to be a very physical battle, which always is the case.
“I’m sure that it’s going to be a final with a lot of emotions and a lot of exchanges from the baseline because we have similar styles of game. I know his game; he knows mine. I’m sure we’re going to try to both give it all.”
And when Murray has given his all against Djokovic on a clay court in the past month, he has managed to win three sets. If he can win another three again this afternoon, the French Open title will be his.