Crisis, what crisis? Andy Murray arrived at the Monte Carlo Masters without a win for nearly three months but has responded with a run that matches his best-ever performance on his most challenging surface.
Murray's emphatic 6-2, 6-1 victory yesterday over Portugal's Frederico Gil sent the 23-year-old Scot into the semi-finals of a clay-court Masters Series tournament for only the second time in his career.
The last week on the Côte d'Azur could prove to be a major turning point in Murray's season, although the world No 4 might struggle to make further progress. His opponent in the last four this afternoon is the king of clay himself, Rafael Nadal, who is chasing his seventh consecutive Monte Carlo title.
Nevertheless, three successive straight-set victories have clearly done wonders for Murray's confidence in the wake of the barren run that followed his victory over David Ferrer in the semi-finals of the Australian Open in January.
"Obviously I plan on winning the match," Murray said as he looked ahead to facing Nadal, who has practised with him this week. "You need to go in with that attitude. I'll think about the tactics a little bit tonight. I've always enjoyed playing against Rafa. It's obviously a great test."
It was the world No 1 who ended Murray's previous best sequence on clay in the semi-finals of this tournament two years ago. However, the Scot took plenty of positives from that display after keeping the Spaniard on court for more than two hours.
"I remember the end of the second set well," Murray said. "That was where I felt I played some of my best clay-court tennis. I started to find the right way to play against him. He's obviously incredibly difficult to beat on clay, but you need to believe you can win and execute the game plan you set out from the first point to the last."
Although Nadal has won nine of their 13 meetings, Murray has come out on top in four of the last eight, including two in Grand Slam tournaments. When they last met, in the semi-finals of the ATP World Tour Finals in London in November, Nadal won a thrilling match after more than three hours.
The 24-year-old Spaniard's 6-1, 6-3 win yesterday over Ivan Ljubicic was his 35th victory in a row in this tournament and his 27th in succession on clay, his last defeat having come at the hands of Robin Soderling at the 2009 French Open. However, Nadal has not won a tournament for six months and is under pressure to keep winning to stop Novak Djokovic – who is absent this week with a knee injury – replacing him at the top of the world rankings.
Murray, ironically, is showing some of the best clay-court form of his career having just parted company with his part-time coaching consultant, Alex Corretja, who was originally recruited to help him on this surface. Murray, who is looking to appoint a new coach, executed a near-perfect match yesterday, constructing points with the patience you would normally expect from someone who has spent a lifetime playing on clay.
Gil, who had won five matches in succession to reach his first Masters Series quarter-final, rarely found the weight of shot to trouble Murray, who repeatedly manoeuvred himself into dominant positions before unleashing his killer blows. There was a touch of genius about some of his winners, including one drop shot that spun viciously into the tramlines and a wonderfully angled low forehand after chasing down a drop shot by Gil.
Despite the tricky conditions, with an unpredictable chilly breeze occasionally blowing clay into the players' faces, Murray quickly found his stride to break serve in the third and fifth games before taking the first set. Gil held his opening service game of the second set and then got to 0-30 on Murray's, but thereafter his resistance crumbled. Murray converted his second match point with a forehand winner down the line after just an hour and 11 minutes.
Jurgen Melzer sprang a surprise in the other half of the draw with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over Roger Federer, whose only other defeats this year had been against Nadal and Djokovic. The world No 9, who had never taken a set off Federer before, now faces Ferrer, who beat Viktor Troicki 6-3, 6-3.