Andy Murray's pride has been hurting more than his body for most of the past 10 weeks but the world No 4 headed for Spain yesterday with an injured elbow his greatest concern. Having restored much of his confidence during an excellent first week of the clay-court season, Murray will have to decide in the next 48 hours whether he is fit enough to play in this week's Barcelona Open.
The 23-year-old Scot needed a cortisone injection in his right elbow to enable him to play Rafael Nadal in Saturday's semi-finals of the Monte Carlo Masters, though it did not prevent him pushing the world No 1 hard before losing 6-4, 2-6, 6-1 in a thriller that lasted nearly three hours. The match took plenty out of Nadal, who looked well below his best yesterday despite claiming the Monte Carlo title for a record seventh year in succession with a 6-4, 7-5 victory over his fellow Spaniard, David Ferrer.
When Murray practised on Saturday morning his elbow was so painful that he could not serve. He had never had a problem with the joint before last week, but had felt some discomfort the previous day during his quarter-final victory over Frederico Gil. Murray saw the tournament doctor 40 minutes before the scheduled start of his semi-final, which was eventually delayed by half an hour.
The numbed elbow did not prevent the Scot from playing some excellent tennis, although he struggled when the effects of the injection wore off in the final set. Murray broke Nadal's serve six times and became only the second player (after Novak Djokovic in the 2009 final) to take a set off the Spaniard in this tournament since 2006.
It was a remarkable return to form by the Scot, who until last week had not won a set, let alone a match, since the semi-finals of the Australian Open. Having played only three matches in the previous two and a half months, the world No 4 played four matches in four days in Monte Carlo.
He believes there is still room for improvement. "I think I can play better," Murray said. "Obviously it's good to know you're able to play at a similar level to what [Nadal] does on the clay. To win against him, you need to be able to do that for three and a half hours, four hours. The matches that he's lost on clay the last few years have normally been long ones.
"He's the best player in the world for a reason. It's good to be close to him, but I want to try to play better than that. I'll need to if I want to beat him, because he's going to improve for sure over the next few weeks the more he plays on clay."
Nadal and Murray are the top two seeds in Barcelona, where both have first-round byes. Assuming the result of an MRI scan does not lead to his withdrawal, Murray faces a tricky opening match against Juan Carlos Ferrero or Xavier Malisse. Thereafter he could meet Juan Monaco in the third round, Nicolas Almagro in the quarter-finals and Ferrer in the semi-finals.
Ferrer had his chances to win his first Masters Series title but was unable to capitalise on an uncharacteristically erratic performance by Nadal. In front of a crowd that featured personalities as diverse as Prince Albert of Monaco, Bono and Caroline Wozniacki, Nadal made 30 unforced errors and hit just 22 winners before retaining his title after two hours and 16 minutes.
Although this was his 37th consecutive victory in the principality and his 29th win in a row on his favourite surface, the world No 1 did not display the same mastery he had 12 months ago, when he went on to win all the season's major clay-court honours. He had lost the last two Masters Series finals on hard courts to Djokovic, who missed this tournament because of a knee injury, and went into the event having not won a title anywhere for six months.
Nevertheless this was Nadal's 30th triumph on clay, which puts him joint third on the all-time Open era list alongside Bjorn Borg and Manuel Orantes, with only Guillermo Vilas (45) and Thomas Muster (40) ahead of him. The Spaniard has won 44 titles on all surfaces, while his tally of 19 Masters Series titles is two more than anyone else.