Murray's feats of clay earn him major respect
'Best defender in the world' remains on course for semi-final clash with Nadal
Respect for Andy Murray among his peers grows with every passing week. Clay is the 22-year-old Scot's least comfortable surface but he plays here today in the fourth round of the French Open with, whisper it, his route opening up towards a semi-final showdown with Rafael Nadal.
Murray's latest victim, Janko Tipsarevic, who retired with sore hamstrings after going two sets down to the world No 3 on Friday night, did not hold back in his praise. "He is the best defender and has the best passing shots on the tour," the 24-year-old Serb said. "He's not Nadal but he's still a great player on clay.
"He plays the right shots at the important moments. It's probably because of the confidence that he has gained in the last couple of months. When it matters, he's a world-class player and he knows what shot needs to be played. He makes you play that extra shot."
Having surpassed his previous best performance here by reaching the last 16, Murray now meets 20-year-old Marin Cilic, the winner to face Fernando Gonzalez or Victor Hanescu in the quarter-finals.
Murray lost to Cilic in the semi-finals of the French Open junior tournament in 2005 – the Scot's last match at that level before he moved full-time to the senior circuit – but has beaten the 6ft 6in Croatian in their two subsequent meetings.
Having won three tournaments in the last nine months, Cilic is at a career-high No 13 in the world rankings. He has not dropped a set in his first three matches here, disposing of Jan Hernych, Dudi Sela and Radek Stepanek for the loss of only 21 games, three fewer than Rafael Nadal.
"He serves well and, for a big guy, he moves well," Murray said. "He and [Juan Martin] del Potro, for two huge guys, play different games to how you would have expected them to play maybe 10 or 15 years ago. They don't come to the net that much and they play mainly from the back, hitting big ground strokes."
Under the watchful eye of his coaches, Miles Maclagan and Alex Corretja, Murray has grown in confidence over the first week, dropping only one set in beating Juan Ignacio Chela, Potito Starace and Tipsarevic, who all grew up on clay courts.
"A lot of people thought I had a very tricky draw and I've come through some tough situations, but I haven't used up too much energy," Murray said. "It's been a good week. Winning's the most important thing and the second is not to use up too much energy. The higher-ranked players tend to play better as the tournament goes on. Hopefully next week I'll play better than I did this week."
With the slower surface lessening the advantage of the big servers – even if Ivo Karlovic did hit a record 55 aces against Lleyton Hewitt – Murray has become adept at turning around situations that might have spelled major trouble on quicker courts. He beat Starace convincingly despite a run in which he won only two of 13 games, while he broke Tipsarevic, a big-hitter with a deceptively heavy serve, on all three occasions when the Serb served for the first set.
"You just fight and try to come back," Murray said. "I guess it's much easier to do that on clay. You get into more rallies and it's tough just to serve well and win the set comfortably. One of the things I've talked to Alex and Miles about is not to panic if you go behind. One break is nothing on these courts. Two is obviously a bit tougher but you can always find ways to come back."
Nevertheless, Murray will guard against complacency. Asked if there were any parts of his game he felt he needed to work on during the second week, he said: "All of it. I think I served very well in my first two matches, but I didn't hit my first serve that well against Tipsarevic, though when it mattered in the tie-break I served great.
"I'll just try and play consistently well for the whole of my matches and not have any little let-downs. I guess that would be my goal for next week."
The world No 3's progress is in marked contrast to his brother's struggles. Jamie Murray's year hit another low point last week when he lost in the first round of the men's doubles and found himself frozen out of the mixed event. Liezel Huber, his regular partner at recent Grand Slam tournaments, has teamed up instead with Bob Bryan because she feared Murray's falling ranking would not be high enough to earn a place in the Paris draw. However, they are expected to play together at Wimbledon.
Although Murray's partnership last year with Max Mirnyi did not work out, the Scot peaked at No 27 in the world doubles rankings only four months ago. Since his early-season plans to play with Serbia's Dusan Vemic fizzled out, Murray has had four different partners – Simon Aspelin, Jamie Delgado, Paul Hanley and Pavel Vizner – and won only three of his last 11 matches. At Queen's Club and Wimbledon he will team up temporarily with Israel's Jonathan Erlich.
"I've hit a rough patch the last few months," he said. "I don't know why. I lost a few matches and you lose confidence, start to think about things too much, over-analyse and it gets worse."
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