For much of the three hours and 16 minutes it took Murray to get the better of Ferrer 7-6, 6-2, 5-7, 6-1, the Court Suzanne Lenglen chanted his name, cheered his every winner (and there were 53 of them) and sighed sympathetically when he lost the third set. The support was not lost on the Scot as he implored the crowd to come back and cheer him some more when he takes on Novak Djokovic tomorrow. Murray’s clay court game has come on in leaps and bounds this year but he is still going to need all the help he can get against the world No 1.
The change in Murray on clay this year is beyond remarkable. He is strong, he is confident, he is aggressive and he is constructing his points with care and imagination. His movement on the red dirt is fluid, his sheer muscle power is obvious and his tactics are clearly defined. In the past, Murray played like a man who was doing what he thought he ought to do on a clay court; the man who is racking up the match wins this season looks like a man who knows exactly what he is doing and how to get what he wants.
Murray has now won 15 consecutive matches on the red dirt and only he and Djokovic remain unbeaten on the surface this season. And by reaching the last four in Paris, he has become only the sixth man in Open era history to reach the semi-finals at all four grand slam events on three or more occasions. His newfound love of clay is cementing him into the record books with every round that passes.
If Ivan Lendl coaxed Murray out of his defensive shell on hard courts and grass, Amelie Mauresmo has found a way to make her charge attack on the slowest of all courts. He is crunching his forehand, stepping into every second service return and directing his backhand like a heat-seeking missile.
“He’s much more aggressive,” Ferrer said. “When he used the different shots he has to play, he’s one of the best players in the top three, I’d say. If, in addition to this you were to count his talent, I think that he’s more aware of what’s happening. Not just on quick surfaces, but also on clay. He’s much more serene and calm.”
Calm he was, indeed, as he pushed through the sets. It was Ferrer who was flustered and frustrated, complaining endlessly about the courtside photographers daring to click their shutters as he went to serve (oddly, they did not seem to bother him in the previous round as he was flattening Marin Cilic). And it was Ferrer who growled and grumbled at the back of the court when another serve missed the mark or ground stroke flew wide.
The first set was a game of cat and mouse – except that the cat was not that hungry and the mouse was not particularly worried. Neither man could hold serve to save themselves (12 games played, six breaks of serve recorded) until they reached the tiebreak.
That is when Murray raced into the lead and then hung on to his advantage like a limpet to a lighthouse and, on his fourth set point, claimed the set as his own. Then, from being three break points down at the start of the second set, the world No 3 started to play like a man with his eye on the semi-final. Or possibly beyond.
Murray basically taught Ferrer, the clay court specialist, a lesson in that set, outwitting him, overpowering him and bossing him around to take a two-set lead.
True enough, he let slip a 3-0 lead in the third set and saw a match point come and go as Ferrer served to stay in it, but when forced into the fourth set, he did not blink or look back. He simply got back to work, unleashed that backhand and crushed the Spaniard.
“I knew it was going to be an extremely tough match today,” Murray said. “The first set was very, very important. I think I had the break three times and served for the first set, didn’t get it, and then managed to hang on in the tiebreak. The third set was a tough one to lose, having match point, but I got off to a good start in the fourth set. But he fought extremely hard at the end of the third and made it very difficult.”
But now there is Djokovic to face. The world No 1 has not lost a match since February, he has lost only twice all year and yesterday he pulverized Rafael Nadal 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 to reach the semi-final. Against Murray, Djokovic has 7-0 winning record since the Wimbledon final of 2013, an 18-8 winning record overall and a 2-0 winning record on clay.
Tomorrow’s challenge, then, sounds like mission impossible for the Scot but, then again, 12 months ago, no one would have imagined that Murray would be a clay court champion and one of the favourites for the French Open trophy. Stranger things have happened in Paris over the years.