There is a glint in Andy Murray’s eyes, a look that suggests he means business. For the second year running, he has beaten Rafael Nadal on clay and in Spain. For the second year running he is in the Madrid Open final. But this time it feels very different.
CoLast year, Murray beat Nadal when the Spaniard was struggling to find any semblance of form or confidence. This year, he stopped Nadal’s 13-match winning streak – the world No.5 came to the Spanish capital as the champion of Monte Carlo and Barcelona – and he did it the hard way.
His first serve was misfiring for much of the first set and there were precious few of the cheap points that had seen him dismiss Gilles Simon and Tomas Berdych in previous rounds. But best of all, Murray was focused and concentrated throughout the two hours and 11 minutes it took him to secure the win and a final showdown with Novak Djokovic who defeated Kei Nishikori 6-3 7-6 (7-4) in the other semi-final.
“I think it’s big,” Murray said quietly. “Obviously it’s not easy. Not loads of players have won against Rafa on clay throughout his career. Very few in the last year, for sure, even when he wasn’t playing his best. Yeah, to beat him in Spain on a clay court is obviously a big, big challenge for any player. Very pleased to have beaten him this year.
“It’s a big, big step for me from where I was four or five weeks ago. I’m going back in the right direction again.”
Since he came back from paternity leave, Murray has been struggling to screw down his concentration from first ball until last. Muscles can be coaxed back into compliance with a little extra time in the gym or on the practice courts but the mind takes time to train.
Yesterday, when his serve was faltering and when Nadal tried to apply the pressure, Murray held firm. There was no yelling at his team at the side of the court and there was no retreating into his shell – he knew what he had to do to win and he kept trying to do it until he got it right.
“I don’t know if I’m playing better this year than I was last year,” Murray said, “or the match I played today, how much better it was than the final last year. Impossible to say.
“I know that today when he had opportunities, I think I served pretty well in a lot of them, and also was trying to play sort of aggressive, offensive tennis at those moments. I wasn’t sort of backing off at all. So I was very pleased with that.
“Obviously when you play the best players, they are going to create chances. You have to be able to respond when they do create the chances positively. I think I did that today.”
The conditions in Madrid, 667 metres above sea level, suit Murray better than Nadal as the thinner air gives the ball a little more fizz as it flies. That encourages the Scot to be more aggressive but he has learned how to take calculated risks here – and that is what has brought him his two victories over Nadal.
He went on the attack whenever he could and yet Murray was also winning many of the long, gruelling baseline rallies. He was playing his drop shot to perfection – Nadal, meanwhile, could not land a drop shot to save himself – and he kept plugging away at his big first serve until it came good.
There is still another match to win today if Murray is to defend his title and protect his No.2 ranking, but looking ahead to the French Open which starts in a couple of weeks, Nadal thinks Murray is ready to make his mark there.
“He can win the title,” Nadal said simply. “If you were in the semi-final two times in Roland Garros and you lost in five sets in semi-finals last year, it’s obvious that you can win the title.
“Last year he won here [in Madrid], so he knows how to play very well. He’s a player that can win against everybody. But like everybody, you need to arrive fresh physically and mentally and playing your best tennis. Roland Garros is a tough tournament, two weeks, best-of-five sets, and anything can happen.”