French Open 2014: Andy Murray v Gael Monfils - Scot peaking in time to end home run
British No 1 feeling fitter than ever since surgery and hitting backhand beautifully
Timing has always been one of Andy Murray's strengths and the Scot is hitting his best form as sweetly as he strikes his double-handed backhand. The first five months of his comeback following back surgery have not always been easy, but as Murray prepares for his French Open quarter-final here against Gaël Monfils the signs are that his game is peaking in time for the critical period of the season.
"That was what I was hoping, what I was planning for," Murray said ahead of his fourth Roland Garros quarter-final. "The Australian Open was always going to be tough for me to be 100 per cent in terms of match fitness, but I did OK there and hopefully between now and the end of the year I can feel like this. When I do I'll be able to play good tennis.
"These are the tournaments that ultimately I want to peak at, I want to play my best tennis at. They mean a lot to me. To play my best tennis and have my most consistent results in the biggest tournaments is what you want to do as a player."
Feeling better physically has been crucial. Having missed last year's French Open after aggravating a long-term back condition, Murray nursed himself through the summer before undergoing surgery in September.
"I was in a lot of pain for a long time," Murray said. "[It was] frustrating, tiring, daily. You go through a lot of different emotions. At times it can make you very angry. Normally I enjoy all the training that goes with it, but there were periods when it would become difficult. I'd try to push hard and it would hurt and so I'd have to ease off. I couldn't get myself into the shape I wanted to be in. Hopefully now I'm over the worst and so long as I keep monitoring it and doing all the right things with it, I'll be fine."
He added: "The way I'm hitting my backhand now is 10 times better than it was last year and moving to that side as well is so much better than it was. There were periods this year when I had some problems, but that is to be expected with surgery and it's starting to get better slowly and I'm close to being back to 100 per cent. That's exciting for me, especially at this stage of the year, with a big few weeks around the corner."
Mats Wilander, three times a champion here and now a Eurosport analyst, has been particularly impressed by Murray's backhand. "He's timing it so well," Wilander said. "He hits some backhands which are literally right after the bounce. He's hitting the target with his forehands as well, but really the backhand is the one which I think he relies on.
"The strength of his upper body is unbelievable. The ball shoots through the court, more so than Novak Djokovic's backhand at the moment. If you allow Andy Murray to do what he did [against Fernando Verdasco in the fourth round] it's nearly impossible to beat him. He is great at making adjustments and if he is as confident as he is now then he's a danger to all of them."
Murray will have to contend not only with his opponent but with a crowd supporting their local hero. The match will be played on Court Philippe Chatrier, the main show court, while Rafael Nadal's quarter-final against David Ferrer – a rematch of last year's final – has been relegated to Court Suzanne Lenglen.
Monfils, a Parisian, has reserved most of his best Grand Slam performances for his home tournament. He has reached one semi-final and two previous quarter-finals, losing to Roger Federer on each occasion. "They give me more energy and more belief," Monfils said of his home crowd. "I like playing in Paris. I grew up here and I just feel great here."
Like Murray, the world No 28 is currently without a coach. He is a wonderful entertainer but can be frustratingly unpredictable and has had at least seven coaches in his professional career. The 27-year-old Frenchman has been working on his own for more than a year now. "Sometimes it's tough," he said. "I miss someone else's view of me and for sure the preparation before a match is not easy."
Although Monfils is a great athlete – "maybe the best we have had in tennis," according to Murray – he has been struggling for fitness. Even during his three-set victory over Guillermo Garcia-Lopez on Monday he was starting to look fatigued. "I'm tired," Monfils admitted. "The second week is never easy. Even over three sets I think I lost a lot of nervous energy."
Murray and Monfils have known each other since they were 10 and 11 respectively, when they met at a tournament in the south of France. They are good friends and have the highest respect for one another. Monfils said he had been impressed by the way the Scot has played on clay.
"People used to say that Roger [Federer] did not play well on clay, but he won the final here," Monfils said. "The same for Murray. He's already played in a semi-final here and the way he played against Rafa in Rome showed that he was to be reckoned with."
Murray has won three of their five meetings, but Monfils has come out on top on both occasions when they have played in Paris, at the 2006 French Open and the 2010 Paris Masters. However, since losing to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the first round of the 2008 Australian Open, Murray has won his last 20 Grand Slam matches against French players. After his travails of the last nine months, victory No 21 would be one of his sweetest.
Sharapova stumped by Judy and her teabag
Judy Murray may be a tennis celebrity in Britain but Maria Sharapova has never heard of her. Andy Murray's mother compared Sharapova to a teabag on Twitter today – "Put her into hot water and you'll find out how strong she is" – but when it was mentioned at the Russian's post-match press conference she said: "Sorry. I didn't know who Judy Murray is."
Sharapova also had trouble understanding the comment. "Can you explain that to me? I'm a big tea drinker. I don't understand what she means." When it was explained, she smiled: "That's great. She's very creative. I guess she could have put it many different ways, and she chose the English version."
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