Tomas Berdych is one of only three players in the world's top 20 – Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are the others – who have won more matches against Andy Murray than they have lost. The powerful Czech's big-hitting game usually gives Murray trouble and once again he got the better of him yesterday, winning their quarter-final at the Monte Carlo Masters 6-7, 6-2, 6-3.
The match, nevertheless, was just the sort of work-out Murray needs on what has always been his most challenging surface. The 24-year-old Scot had started the day with less than three sets of competitive clay-court play in singles under his belt this year and Berdych admitted that his greater court time in recent days had been crucial. The world No 7 had already played four matches and 11 sets on clay in the previous fortnight.
As Murray had pointed out beforehand, Berdych is an exception among the top players in that he makes few changes to his attacking game on clay, eschewing the heavy top spin most use and choosing instead to stick with his big, flat ground strokes. Because he plays with a smaller margin for error than most – and because it is harder to hit winners on clay – the strategy can be risky, but the 26-year-old Czech struck the ball with almost unerring accuracy.
"He played very, very well today – for his game style he made very few unforced errors," Murray said. "He dictated a lot of the points. He went for his shots. I think he served very well too.
"He served a lot of serves close to the lines. It was first serve and first hit in the rally. No matter how much you would have liked to have dictated the points, when someone serves 137 miles an hour to the line, hits a forehand to the line, you can't dictate the point. That's what happened on his service games."
While Berdych had 16 break points in the match, Murray, who is one of the best returners, forced only one. The Scot's frustration got the better of him at times. Since Ivan Lendl's appointment as his coach, Murray has generally been much better at channeling his emotions and maintaining his focus, but here he regularly berated himself and at one stage smashed his racket on the ground. Lendl, who will also be with Murray at next week's Barcelona Open, watched impassively from the stands.
In the early stages in particular, Murray was clearly unhappy with the uneven court surface, on which two players have suffered injuries in heavy falls this week. There were several bad bounces, although Berdych had even more cause for complaint after two such moments at crucial times in the tie-break at the end of the first set.
Although Murray sometimes played too cautiously, he said that his first tournament of the year on clay had been "a decent start" and that a match that had lasted 13 minutes short of three hours, in which he had done most of the running, would put him in good stead for the weeks ahead.
"There are a lot of things I would have liked to have done better," he said. "It takes a lot of time for me to do it on this surface. It doesn't come straight away. It takes time for me to understand the way I'm needing to play."
Berdych will play Djokovic in today's semi-finals after the world No 1 beat Robin Haase of the Netherlands 6-4, 6-2 in just 77 minutes. Nadal, who is attempting to win the title here for the eighth year in a row, beat Switzerland's Stanislas Wawrinka 7-5, 6-4. He now faces the winner of last night's concluding quarter-final between the two Frenchmen, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon.