THE thought that Andy Murray is channelling his inner Tim Henman ahead of the French Open is enough to strike fear into the heart of any British tennis fan. With all due respect to the former national treasure, Timothy Henry H was never what you would call a grand slam force.
Not even the perennial bridesmaid, Henman was more your page boy at the big events: he looked clean and smart, everyone thought he was awfully sweet but once the first week of a major championship was over, he was surplus to requirements. He reached six grand slam semi-finals over the course of his career, four of them at Wimbledon. Away from SW19, he could never get beyond the fourth round until one glorious fortnight in 2004 when he served and volleyed his way to the semi-finals at Roland Garros.
Abandoning all thoughts of playing the way the dirt ballers do, Henman did what he did best – he was aggressive – and, lo and behold, it worked. He even took the first set from Guillermo Coria, then the world No.3 and a claycourter through and through, before the Argentine took over and made it to the final. This, then, was a revelation.
Eleven years on, Murray is convinced that Henman’s approach is the way to tackle the French Open. He was finally persuaded by Jonas Bjorkman, the latest addition to his team of coaches and advisers, and, so far, the plan is working a treat. When Bjorkman and Murray got together last month to prepare for the coming clay court season, they plotted a possible path across the red courts of Europe and Bjorkman’s route was the most direct.
The Swede is not with Murray this week – Amelie Mauresmo is back in charge in her final event before she goes on maternity leave – but his influence is obvious.
“There are things in Jonas’s game which I felt like I used to do and maybe got a little bit away from,” Murray said. “He used to be very aggressive on the second-serve return. Just before I started with Jonas and when I was speaking to him, I was saying to him that was something I wanted to get back into doing, putting pressure on my opponents in that way. I’ve actually done that very well on the clay, and even in Miami as well I did that.
“Jonas was pretty competent up at the net. Something I want to continue to learn about is when to come to the net, where to volley when you are there. Because you can hit loads of volleys, but it’s important to know where your opponent is on the court and making the right decision: when you come forward, what volleys to hit, when to go back in behind them, when to hit into the open space, when to use the drop volley. He has good understanding of all that.
“One of the things he said to me was that, on the clay, he always preferred to play guys that loved playing on the clay. Tim [Henman] was the same. He used to love coming into the net or drop-shotting or coming in behind the drop shots, using the short slice, and just playing a different game style which they found difficult to deal with.”
Certainly the way that Murray demolished Rafael Nadal in the Madrid final was proof positive that the plan worked and now he will try the game plan over the best of five sets against Facundo Arguello, the world No.139 from Argentina, in his opening match in Paris. Every match bar one that Arguello has played this year has been on clay (and he lost the one that wasn’t). At 22, he has yet to set the world alight and while he won a Challenger event in Texas at the end of last month, he has only won two matches on the main tour since the start of January.
Murray’s route to the final is littered with potential potholes. Nick Kyrgios could wait for him in the third round – the same Kyrgios who beat Roger Federer in Madrid. John Isner, he of the booming serve and, unusually for an American, a solid reputation on European clay, could be standing in the fourth round. And then there is David Ferrer, the claycourter’s clay court player, pencilled in as a quarter-final opponent, with either Novak Djokovic or Nadal in the semi-finals. There is a huge amount of work for Murray to do in the coming days if he is to reach his first Roland Garros final.
“I think it will be very tough for me to win the event,” Murray said. “I’m very aware of that.
“The last few weeks have helped build my belief and confidence on the surface. There are guys who have won this tournament before. Novak is obviously a much better clay-court player than me; Rafa – much better on the clay. Roger has had much better success. Ferrer has been to the final here before. And I haven’t done that.
“For me it would be a new experience. I don’t know how I would deal with that if I was to reach a final or to get close to reaching a final. A lot of the players have commented on how slow the conditions are so it’s going to be tough, physical matches if the courts stay like that. We’ll see. I’ve practised well.”
And Murray has planned well, too. Bjorkman has brought out the aggressor in Murray and given him a new lease of life on the clay. Somewhere in Oxfordshire, Tim Henman must be smiling.