With injuries disrupting his last two clay-court seasons, Andy Murray was determined to arrive here for this week's Masters Series tournament in the best possible shape. The British No 1 practised hard in Barcelona last week, training in the heat of the afternoon with the former French Open finalist, Alex Corretja, who has joined his coaching team.
Come yesterday afternoon Murray might have wondered whether he should have stayed at the National Tennis Centre in Roehampton, where he began practising earlier this month on clay courts that had just been cleared of snow. Play had barely got under way here when a chill wind and persistent rain brought a premature end to the opening day.
More of the same is expected today, though the weather is set to improve. Murray, who is scheduled to play his first match against Feliciano Lopez this afternoon, will be hoping for a similar upturn in his own fortunes. Although he enjoys playing on clay and had plenty of experience on it while training as a teenager in Barcelona, he has played just nine tour matches on the surface – of which he has won only two – in the last two years.
"It's obviously going to take a bit of time," Murray said yesterday. "I've never played well on clay in the past, so I feel like there's maybe less pressure because I've not played too many matches. I'm not expecting too much of myself, but I've practised hard and trained hard and want to try and play better than I have in the past. I think I can definitely do that. I've worked hard off the court and I believe my fitness isn't going to be a problem in matches any more. That's a huge bonus mentally."
Corretja said that he had turned down other coaching offers but took the chance to work with Murray because of the Scot's potential. "He can easily play on clay because he can play from the baseline," Corretja said. "He has some good things that the others don't. He has a very big serve. He can go to the net. He can mix it up very well, He can play aggressively and defensively. He can move well. He can play drop shots. It's difficult to improve things in a few days, but you tell him something and he gets it straight away."
Corretja is a good friend of Lopez, who practised with Murray in Spain last week. Murray beat Lopez in straight sets in their only meeting, but while the Spaniard is a serve-and-volley specialist who prefers quicker surfaces, he can compete with the very best. Lopez beat three top-10 players last month on his way to the final in Dubai and beat Juan Carlos Ferrero, a former French Open champion, on clay last year.
The winner will play Nicolas Mahut or Filippo Volandri. In his last match on clay, against Volandri in Rome 11 months ago, Murray retired hurt with the wrist injury that kept him out of the game for three months. If the Scot reaches the third round his likely opponent is Novak Djokovic, the world No 3 and the most successful player this year.
Roger Federer is in the same half of the draw and will be playing with renewed confidence after claiming his first title of the year yesterday. The world No 1, who had failed to reach the final in his four previous tournaments, won the Estoril Open on clay in Portugal after Nikolay Davydenko retired with a leg injury when trailing 7-6, 2-1.
Rafael Nadal, the No 2 seed here, has dominated clay-court tennis for the last three years, but believes his chances have not been helped by the scheduling of tournaments in a year disrupted by the Olympic Games. "The calendar is completely crazy," he said. "I think this is not fair for the European players or the clay-court players. Three Masters Series events in four weeks is too much."
The Spaniard was particularly angry that the Masters Series tournament in Miami stretched into April because of American television demands. "They put Indian Wells and Miami one week back because of college basketball," he said. "I understand that's important in the US, but we have the world tour calendar and my feeling is that we shouldn't base it around college basketball in America."