Andy Murray is playing down his chances of success in the clay-court season, but Fernando Verdasco, one of only two players to have beaten him this year, has little doubt about the Scot's longer-term prospects. "If things carry on as they are I think for sure he will finish this year as world No 2," the Spaniard said here yesterday.
Murray has never won more than two matches in succession on clay, but has the perfect incentive to improve that record over the next two months. Starting here with this week's Monte Carlo Masters, the traditional start to the European outdoor season, he has an outstanding chance of overhauling Novak Djokovic as world No 3 and might even replace Roger Federer at No 2.
The game's top four players have pulled away to such an extent that Murray, the world No 4, has almost twice as many ranking points as Juan Martin del Potro, the No 5, but within the elite group there are clearly two men at the top of their game and two who are not. While Rafael Nadal and Murray go from strength to strength, Federer has been losing consistently to both men and Djokovic has been struggling to recover the form that took him to last year's Australian Open title.
Verdasco, who produced one of the surprises of the year when he beat Murray in Melbourne in January, says the Scot is the player who bears best comparison with Nadal.
"Right now Rafa and Andy are the two best players," Verdasco said. "Andy's first serve is better than Rafa's, though I think Rafa has the better second serve. On the baseline Andy has an unbelievable backhand. The better you play against him the better he plays.
"Defensively, he and Rafa are the best two players and when he needs to play an approach to the net and volley he has a very good touch. He's a complete player and right now he's so strong mentally. He believes in himself so much and believes that he can beat everyone. I think that's the difference with him this year.
"We've only had three months of the season, but if he keeps playing the same way I think he will be No 2 at the end of the year. Everybody saw at the beginning of the year how strong he is."
Djokovic is just 170 ranking points ahead of Murray, though the Scot will have to reach at least the semi-finals here to catch him this week; because of a quirk in the schedule, next week's updated ranking list will include the players' points from both Monte Carlo this year and 2008. In a fortnight's time, however, when Djokovic will lose the 450 points he won here last year and Murray will drop just 150, the Scot is likely to move ahead.
Murray insisted that the ranking position was not uppermost in his mind. "If I keep winning then my ranking is going to go up," he said. "If I focus on each match, like I did in the States, just one match at a time and don't get ahead of myself, there is a good chance I'll get to No 3."
In his opening match today Murray meets Victor Hanescu, the world No 35. He has never played the 27-year-old Romanian, who beat Spain's Alberto Martin 6-2, 6-3 in yesterday's first round.