Andy Murray acknowledges that he has plenty to learn about clay-court tennis and the world No 4 was taught a harsh lesson yesterday. Murray appeared comfortably in command against Juan Monaco in the Rome Masters only to see the second-round contest slip from his grasp. Monaco won 1-6, 6-3, 7-5 as Murray lost his first opening match at a tournament since the Olympic Games.
The last two sets were in stark contrast to Murray's performances in his first tournament of the clay-court season a fortnight ago in Monte Carlo, where he reached his first semi-final on his least favoured surface. Controlled aggression brought its reward there, but this time Murray seemed to lack the confidence to take his game to Monaco, who dominated the latter stages with his aggressive play from the baseline.
In four visits to Rome Murray has won just one match. The Foro Italico can be a tricky venue, with rapidly changing conditions. It is often cold and damp, making the balls heavy, yet the courts can also be hot and dusty. The temperature climbed quickly yesterday after a chilly start and it was Monaco who took full advantage of the faster conditions. The 25-year-old Argentine is a clay-court specialist who has won three titles on his favourite surface.
Murray's athleticism enabled him to keep the ball in play during the first set as Monaco made a succession of mistakes, but the world No 54 began striking it much better as the match progressed. Murray, playing cautiously and standing well behind the baseline, hit too many short balls that were punished by crushing ground strokes or well disguised drop shots.
The 21-year-old Scot appeared to have dug himself out of trouble in the final set when he recovered from 4-2 down to go 5-4 up, but thereafter he won only two more points. It was only his fourth defeat of the year and it ended a fine run in Masters Series events. In his previous seven Masters tournaments Murray had reached one quarter-final, two semi-finals and four finals, three of which he had won. "It wasn't my best match," Murray said. "I would have liked to have kept my run going, but I've had a great eight months."
There were no slip-ups by the top two seeds. Spanish world No 1 Rafael Nadal beat Andreas Seppi 6-2, 6-3, while world No 2 Roger Federer saw off Ivo Karlovic 6-4, 6-4.