The sun came out here yesterday, only for Nicolas Almagro to put Andy Murray in the shade. As the grey clouds and rain showers that have dominated the first week of the French Open gave way to blue skies and rapidly rising temperatures it was perhaps an appropriate moment for a tanned Spaniard to get the better of a pale-faced Scot.
Almagro won 6-3, 6-7, 6-3, 7-5, but the joy of the world No 20's celebrations was an indication of how tough a contest it was. Murray had arrived at Roland Garros having lost his only previous match on these courts, but after two wins forced one of the game's best clay-court players to show the form that has brought him 28 victories and two titles on terre battue this year.
The 22-year-old Spaniard is an attacking player with weighty groundstrokes and an even more impressive serve. He hit 21 aces and struck his second serves with such power, depth and kick that Murray found them hard to attack.
The Scot nevertheless hit some fine strokes of his own, cracking winners down the line and showing great control at the net. If he can serve and volley like this at Wimbledon next month he will trouble the very best.
Murray played his first match here two years ago on Court Philippe Chatrier, the main show court, his second last weekend on Court Suzanne Lenglen, the other show court, and his third on Court 3 on Wednesday night. Given that he was relegated against Almagro to Court 7, a tight arena adjoining two of the site's busiest thoroughfares, he could find himself playing out on the périphérique next year.
In the unfamiliar environment Murray made a slow start. Serving poorly, he immediately dropped his serve and did not force a break point of his own until the fourth game of the second set. Nevertheless the Scot gradually found a rhythm on his serve and played a fine tie-break to take the second set, finishing off with two aces and a delightful angled forehand winner.
When Murray broke early in the third set, thanks to a splendid lob, the biggest clay-court win of his career seemed a possibility. From 3-1 up, however, Murray's level dropped just as Almagro upped his game to win seven games in succession.
The Spaniard served for the match at 5-4 only for Murray to break back with a magnificent forehand winner down the line. Just as he had grabbed a lifeline, however, the Scot let it slip with his worst service game of the match, after which he hurled his cap to the floor in disgust. Almagro did not waste his second chance and secured his passage into the last 16 with a beautiful backhand cross-court passing shot.
"I thought it was a very good match of a very high standard," Murray said. "Some of the shots that I played were pretty special, especially on some big moments.
"I think I proved I'm a good clay-court player. I don't think I'm someone who will be taken lightly on this surface in the future. I believe that I'm going to be one of the top players on clay in a couple of years. I just need a bit more experience, a bit more strength and understanding of how to play."
Having begun his clay-court season ranked No 20 in the world, Murray is already up to No 12 and with a good run at Queen's next month he could be back in the top 10 by the start of Wimbledon, guaranteeing that he would avoid the top players until the later rounds.
Asked about his Wimbledon chances this year, Murray said: "I want to try to win the tournament. I'm not saying it's going to happen, but I believe that if I play my best tennis I can win. I've won against a lot of the top players. Not as many guys play so well on grass.
"I think I serve-volley better than most of the guys on the tour can do, even on a clay court, so if I can bring that to my game on grass and make sure that I continue to play aggressively, but with a little bit of margin for error, keep going for my returns and serve like I did for the last couple of matches, there's no reason why I can't go far in the tournament."
Rafael Nadal, seeking his fourth consecutive title, crushed Jarkko Nieminen for the loss of only five games and now plays a fourth successive left-hander, Fernando Verdasco, who beat Mikhail Youzhny 7-6, 5-7, 7-5, 6-1. Novak Djokovic, the world No 3, beat Wayne Odesnik 7-5, 6-4, 6-2.Reuse content