Andy Murray began the clay-court season with the modest ambition of reaching his first quarter-final on his least favoured surface. By 11.30 yesterday morning here at the Monte Carlo Masters, with the Mediterranean sun beating down, the 21-year-old Scot had reached his target by beating Fabio Fognini 7-6, 6-4.
More than nine hours later, under floodlights and in front of a crowd shivering in the cold and dark, he had surpassed it with victory by the same score over Nikolay Davydenko.
Murray, who must overcome a blistered hand and possible fatigue when he faces the ultimate test against Rafael Nadal in today’s semi-finals, had never previously won three successive matches on clay and agreed that the victory over Davydenko was his best performance on the surface. It also continued his remarkable run, Murray having reached the semi-finals or better at six of the last seven Masters tournaments, winning three of them.
A former world No 3, Davydenko has slipped to No 9 after being sidelined with a heel injury, but a three-set victory in the morning over David Nalbandian had confirmed he was in decent shape. The 27-year-old Russian had won four of his previous seven matches against Murray.
Twice a French Open semi-finalist, Davydenko returns well, moves like lightning and is usually a model of consistency, though 58 unforced errors were down as much to his own rustiness as to Murray’s ability to keep forcing him to play the extra shot. Murray retrieved almost everything Davydenko could throw at him, slid into his shots with confidence and hit the ball cleanly throughout.
“I wasn’t necessarily hitting a lot of winners, but I wasn’t making that many mistakes,” Murray said afterwards. “It’s been a long couple of days and I’m very happy to come through it.”
The first set took an hour and 17 minutes. Murray broke when Davydenko served at 3-4, only to drop his serve in the following game. Davydenko saved two set points at 5-6, but his resistance crumbled in the tie-break.
Davydenko recovered to lead 4-1 in the second set, breaking Murray twice as the Scot became increasingly troubled by blisters on his right hand. A wounded Murray, however, can be dangerous and he won the last five games. He converted his third match point just before 9pm, nearly 10 hours after walking on court to face Fognini.
That match had been called off with the world No 4 leading 7-6, 1-0 in the rain the previous evening. Murray had been unhappy with Thursday’s scheduling, complaining that he had been given only 45 minutes’ notice of a rearranged start time. Once again he started slowly, losing the first three games, but quickly rediscovered his stride, winning five of the last six games.
Nadal also had to win twice yesterday, beating Nicolas Lapentti and Ivan Ljubicic in straight sets.
The world No 1 may still be finding his feet again on clay, but since 2005 he has lost just four of the 140 matches he has played on his favourite surface and won four French Open titles. Murray has beaten him twice in the last nine months, though Nadal won their last meeting, a Masters final in Indian Wells last month, and their only previous match on clay, in Hamburg last year.
Asked about Murray’s threat, Nadal said: “We are talking about the world No 4, who has chances to be No 3 because he doesn’t have to defend a lot of points in the next weeks. It’s always a really tough match against him.”
Murray said he was looking forward to the match. “It will be a great learning experience,” he said. “I’ll obviously have to have a very solid game plan and try and execute it as well as possible. It’s been a long day today, so I’ll try and recover as best as possible for tomorrow, go out and give it my best shot.”
Novak Djokovic meets Stanislas Wawrinka in the other semi-final. Djokovic, making a staunch defence of his No 3 ranking, beat Fernando Verdasco 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, while Wawrinka saw off Andreas Beck.
* Carl Maes has resigned as the head of women’s tennis at the Lawn Tennis Association “for personal and family reasons”. The Belgian, who used to coach Kim Clijsters, had overseen good progress by Britain’s women in his two and a half years in charge.