For all Andy Murray’s achievements in tennis, there is one that goes unnoticed. We all know that he was the first British man in 76 years to win a Grand Slam title and, most famously of all, he was the first homegrown player in 77 years to win Wimbledon. But few notice that he is the first Brit in living memory who knows how to play on clay.
Many have tried in the past, but none has succeeded. From the journeymen to the likes of Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, clay has always been the British Achilles heel. Yet even before Murray took himself off to Barcelona to train on the red stuff as a teenager, he liked the slower surface. And when he got to Barcelona, he soon learned exactly what it took to become a clay court contender.
“I always enjoyed playing on clay when I was growing up,” he said. “I actually had quite good results in the juniors on it. I always enjoyed it. It was a challenge for me and I liked the way that you had to play on it. It’s a different style of tennis that you need to play on the clay.
“It requires patience and hard work, a good tactical knowledge, a tactical brain and there’s some intricacies on the clay courts that you don’t have on the other surfaces. Obviously, the way to move on it is one difference and where to hit certain shots, understanding when to hit the ball back behind your opponent because on the other surfaces, especially on hard courts, guys can change direction quite quickly whereas on this surface it’s a lot, lot harder to do that because your feet go from beneath you. So I’ve tried to learn as much as I can on the surface.”
Just a week away from his 28th birthday and as a long-time resident at the very top end of the rankings, Murray is still learning. As he waited to take on Kei Nishikori in the semi-finals of the Mutua Madrid Open last night and with the Munich clay court title already secured this season, he is under no illusion that he has got this clay court lark sussed. He is good on it but there are others who are better and what this part of the season can teach him will hold him in good stead for the rest of the year.
“Obviously it’s not the most natural surface for me but I think that if I played on it more throughout the year it would be a surface that was more natural to me,” Murray said. “That’s just because I went over to train on it for a couple of pretty important years in my development. That was a sacrifice that I made when I was younger and I got good coaching from good people who know how to teach on that surface.
That was a sacrifice that I made when I was younger and I got good coaching from good people who know how to teach on that surface.Andy Murray
“For us in the UK, I think maybe they don’t teach it the same because there’s not enough clay courts and that’s probably one of the reasons why I’ve managed to have some good results on it.
“I think definitely physically it helps you throughout the rest of the year because you get stronger legs playing on this surface, in my opinion. The sliding is tough on the legs. I think on clay, when you have a break point against you, the mindset is ‘OK, I’m going to have to play a few shots here’ so then when you go on to grass courts, you can win points quickly with a big serve. And I think that’s something that I always take away from it when I get back on the grass: it is nice that I’m expecting a long rally but if you do hit a good serve, you can get free points.
“I think patience is the No.1 thing on this surface and knowing when to be aggressive, that translates on to the other surfaces as well.”
But before the LTA rushes out and spends millions on building clay courts in the hope of breeding a new generation of Andy Murrays, he had a few words of caution. There is far more to making tennis champions than just giving them a court to play on.
“I think it’s important for kids that are 15, 16 years old to get used to playing on this surface,” he said. “You learn a lot about the game, you learn about hard work and suffering on the court physically which you don’t get when you play indoors on very fast courts – you don’t learn to do that; you get away with hitting one good shot and the point is over. On the clay, you can hit five or six good shots and you still haven’t won the point and sometimes you can lose the point. And it’s being able to bounce back from that, so I would recommend for any young player to try to get good training blocks on clay throughout the year.
“I don’t think it’s worth just building clay courts if you don’t know how to teach on the surface. It’s about teaching kids how to move on it properly and if the courts aren’t good then it’s a waste.”