The waiting is all but over for Andy Murray. The 23-year-old Scot, for whom winning a Grand Slam title has become an all-consuming ambition, has had nearly four months to put his defeat to Roger Federer in the final of the Australian Open behind him. Now, as the French Open gets under way here today, he has another chance to become Britain's first male winner of a Grand Slam for 74 years.
Although this is the most difficult of the four majors for Murray, who has to reacquaint himself every season with the art of clay-court tennis, the world No 4 still believes he has every chance of victory. He reached the quarter-finals 12 months ago, when Robin Soderling became the latest in a long line of unlikely finalists at Roland Garros. Since the turn of the century, the list has included Magnus Norman, Albert Costa, Martin Verkerk, Gaston Gaudio and Mariano Puerta.
"I want to try to win the tournament," Murray said. "This is just a bit different to the other Grand Slams because I'm not necessarily one of the favourites to win. It's a little bit different for me going into it, but I'm still very, very excited. These are the tournaments that make your career, the ones you're probably going to be remembered by. That's why you want to play your best in them and give a good account of yourself."
If Murray's clay-court season has taken a while to come to the boil, that was no more than he had expected, particularly after his disappointing run in the wake of the Australian Open. Since Melbourne, his best results have been two quarter-final appearances, in Indian Wells and Madrid, but at no stage was he too concerned about his apparent loss of form.
"When things aren't going that well, you need to get on the practice court," he said. "I knew I needed to work hard on the practice court and in the gym. Every time I've done that I've started to play better. It's not tough mentally, because I actually enjoy doing that. As much as I'd love to win every week it's very, very difficult. This year I wanted to make sure I was peaking for the Slams. I managed to do that in Australia. I played my best there.
"Since I came on to the clay each week has been better. Monte Carlo wasn't good, then Rome was definitely better. I started to play better again and I thought I had a very good week in Madrid last week. I had two good wins and then a very tough match with [David] Ferrer. I've been practising since then and I'm hoping that by the time the tournament starts here I'll be playing very well."
Although Murray has played only six competitive matches on clay this year – Richard Gasquet, his first-round opponent here, played his 20th yesterday when he beat Fernando Verdasco in three sets in the Nice final – he has spent many hours on the practice court and is now feeling comfortable on the surface. Most players need a while to adjust to the slower bounce of the ball on clay, to the need to play a more patient game and to sliding into their shots.
"It takes four or five matches," Murray said. "I felt I was moving well from the first match in Madrid, but even in Rome I still didn't feel like I was. I was moving better, but not as well as I can. Even in Monte Carlo last year I won some matches, but a lot of that was through confidence I brought from winning in Miami. I was not necessarily playing like I should have been, but I had some good wins. It just takes me more time and I need to practise more than I do on the other courts."
The one problem with playing on clay is that it aggravates the long-term problem Murray has had with his right knee. The Scot was born with a bipartite patella – his kneecap is in two parts – and the joint can become sore when he bends it.
"People say clay is the best surface for joints, but that's rubbish," he said. "The way my knee is, clay is the worst surface. The sliding puts a lot of stress through my kneecap. There's a lot more balancing that I have to do with it, a lot more stabilising, and that makes it sore.
"My physio keeps notes of how things are every day. Every year on the clay it does get worse. It takes more maintenance and time to get it right. It normally hurts after every match on clay, but on the other surfaces it has some days where it's better, some where it's worse.
"It's not great at the moment, but I hardly felt it in the first four or five months of the year. It's annoying, because there's nothing I can do about it. I was born with it. It's always going to be there. You can't really have surgery for it, though maybe I will when I finish playing."