Murray cannot wait to get his teeth into 'beatable' King of Clay
A trip to the dentist follows a long list of injuries but Britain's No 1 is ready for Nadal today
Friday 03 June 2011
Andy Murray was taking no chances yesterday. Having had to visit the dentist the previous day after losing a chunk of a tooth while chewing on a baguette, the Scot played it safe as he sat down over lunch here in the players' restaurant to discuss his French Open semi-final today against Rafael Nadal. He arrived carrying a plate of pasta, chicken and vegetables, without a piece of crusty bread in sight.
You get the impression, nevertheless, that very little could throw Murray out of his stride. The world No 4 has reached the semi-finals of his most challenging Grand Slam tournament despite an almost daily round of niggles, from the moment he pulled out of an exhibition match with a groin problem only three days before the start.
"This has been by far my most satisfying run to a Grand Slam semi-final because of everything that's happened since I got here," Murray said. "I hurt my groin in the first practice and I couldn't do much for a few days before the tournament. Then I suffered the ankle injury, which I've never had in a Slam before. That was quite difficult for me.
"I've had to make a lot of comebacks in matches and close sets, and there was even stuff like the dentist and waking up yesterday with a sore throat. I'm not finding those things that difficult to deal with now. It's become more routine. It's weird because it has never happened to me before, but it's been a good test which I've passed well up to now."
Now, however, comes the toughest task yet, a semi-final against the king of clay, who is seeking to join Bjorn Borg as the only man to have won the Roland Garros title six times. Considering the players Murray has beaten so far – Nos 124, 126, 95, 15 and 34 in the world rankings – it is a massive step up in class, though he has plenty of reasons for optimism.
Not only has Murray enjoyed his best season on clay, but Nadal also brings the best out of him. Since losing their first five matches, Murray has won four of the last nine, including two in Grand Slam tournaments. He has lost all three of their meetings on clay, but has improved each time, winning a set in Monte Carlo two months ago despite an elbow injury.
For all those reasons Murray was in a relaxed mood as he looked ahead to his challenge. Earlier in the fortnight the players' restaurant was a hive of activity; now, with the vast majority of the competitors having left, there were plenty of free tables. Judy, Murray's mother, was sitting at one nearby.
If Murray can seem like a perpetually angry young man on court, he is very different away from it. As he related his dental drama, a smile crept across his face at the absurdity of it. "I just bit into a baguette and it kind of snapped," he said. "I felt it, but it was still in position. When I got back I looked in the mirror, fiddled around and pulled it out. I had a good old look down the gum and there was a nice big hole."
The French tennis federation's dentist made a quick repair as Murray got over the latest distraction to his quest for a first Grand Slam title. Now he can concentrate on a task that, for most players, has been as painful as pulling teeth, though Murray always welcomes the chance to play Nadal.
"I've known him a long time," Murray said. "I know his game well. I like playing against him. Even when we practise we always play well against each other. It's always really intense. It''s always been really competitive. Always. I obviously want to make it very, very competitive tomorrow. But I understand that Rafa could probably get away without playing his best match on clay against me and I understand that I'm going to have to play my best to give myself a good chance."
Had he learnt from their previous clay-court meetings? "I think so, because it's a surface that has definitely taken me longer to mature on, to understand how I needed to play. I still need to practise a lot on clay and I still need to play a lot more matches till I get to that consistent level that Rafa's been at.
"But he's the benchmark that you want to look to get to. It's taken time, but I think slowly people have got closer to him. It's like Roger Federer on grass. The guys have started to get a bit closer. I don't necessarily think it's through Roger or Rafa getting worse. I just think it happens naturally, that guys tend to catch up."
Murray, attempting to become the first Briton for 74 years to reach the final here, said it would be important to start well.
"Rafa's a tough guy to come back against," he said. "He's a very good front-runner. I'll need to start well and play like that throughout. You can't play four or five good games and then take two or three games off."
In preparation for his sixth Grand Slam semi-final, which will equal Tim Henman's tally, Murray said he would be watching videos of Nadal, including his own clay-court matches against the Spaniard.
"Everyone thinks that you've just got to go for it against him, but when you watch the way that Novak [Djokovic], Roger or myself have got close, you can't just go for it," he said. "You have to be patient. You have to be willing to work for points and try to win the long points. If he loses some of the longer ones that creates a bit of doubt for him."
Nadal, who is 25 today, has lost only once in 43 matches here but has finally appeared vulnerable on clay this year. He has lost twice on his favourite surface in best-of-three-sets Masters Series finals to Novak Djokovic, who will take the Spaniard's world No 1 ranking if he beats Federer in today's other semi-final, and has been in patchy form here in Paris.
Did Murray feel that Djokovic's successes had dimmed Nadal's aura of invincibility? "Over five sets it's different to over three. I was very surprised Novak beat him in Rome. I thought Rafa would win there.
"In Madrid, with the altitude, I thought that would be a close match like the epic they had the year before. But I don't know if anyone thought Rafa was invincible. I always thought he was beatable, but you have to play unbelievable tennis for such a long period. That's what Novak has done.
"His consistency from the first point to last has been very solid, giving nothing away, whereas Roger and Novak would play well at times against him before and then play a few loose points, one loose game, and that was it.
"Now they are extending him right to the end of sets and that's when everyone gets a little nervous and doubts creep in. That's your chance. You need to play unbelievably consistently and that's what Novak has done the whole year."
If Murray needed any further encouragement he might have got it from reports of Nadal's final training session yesterday. The Spaniard practised with a junior, Hugo Dellien. On the last point Nadal told him: "OK, whoever wins this point wins everything." The 17-year-old can now claim the first victory by a Bolivian over the world No 1.
Tale of the tape
Andy Murray Name Rafael Nadal
15 May 1987, Dunblane Born 3 June 1986, Majorca
Surrey Lives Manacor, Majorca
6ft 3in Height 6ft 1in
13st 3lb Weight 13st 6lb
4 World ranking 1
2 Highest world ranking 1
16 Career titles 45
0 Grand Slam titles 9
6 Masters series titles 19
$15.5m Career earnings $40.1m
Four past matches to give murray encouragement...
US Open semi-final 2008
Murray won 6-2, 7-6, 4-6, 6-4
Perhaps the best performance of Murray's career. Murray took the game to Nadal and had the Spaniard on the back foot throughout. The match took two days to complete after a tropical storm curtailed play with Murray two sets up. Nadal won the third set on the resumption but Murray soon took charge again.
Australian Open quarter-final 2010
Murray won 6-3, 7-6, 3-0 (retired)
Nadal suffered a knee injury in the third set but was already looking a beaten man. Murray went on the attack from the start, regularly playing serve-and-volley. The Scot went for winners whenever the opportunity arose and neutralised Nadal's threat with the power and depth of his groundstrokes.
World Tour Finals semi-final 2010
Nadal won 7-6, 3-6, 7-6
Even though he lost, Murray could take encouragement after one of the matches of the year. Murray was the main aggressor throughout and hit some superb attacking shots. Having saved a match point at 3-5, the Scot forced a tie-break in which he led 3-0, only for Nadal to secure victory after more than three hours.
Monte Carlo semi-final 2011
Nadal won 6-4, 2-6, 6-1
Another defeat for Murray but another reason for optimism. Despite being troubled by an elbow injury which almost forced him to withdraw, Murray became the first player this year to take a set off Nadal on clay. Nadal came back strongly in the final set as Murray was increasingly troubled by his injury.
... and two he might prefer to forget
Wimbledon quarter-final 2008
Nadal won 6-3, 6-2, 6-4
Nadal was on top from the start as Murray struggled to cope with the weight of the Spaniard's shots. Murray did not serve well and Nadal was quick to punish anything that was short. Murray held on until 3-3 in the first set before the Spaniard raced clear to win in less than two hours.
Wimbledon semi-final 2010
Nadal won 6-4, 7-6, 6-4
Although a closer match than the scoreline suggested, the result was a major disappointment after Murray's best ever run at Wimbledon. One loose game cost the Scot the first set, Nadal won a tight tie-break in the second and Murray let slip a lead in the third, having broken serve in the opening game.
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