No surface tension as Murray looks to shed his feet of clay

World No 4 can master tactical game that slowed his progress down in the past
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The Independent Online

Emilio Sanchez could be biased, given that Andy Murray is a graduate of his Barcelona academy, but he believes the world No 4's clay-court fortunes may be about to take a significant turn for the better.

In his four years on the senior tour Murray has never won more than two matches in a row on clay. But Sanchez points to a spate of springtime injuries that hurt Murray's chances in the past and says the 21-year-old Scot has the potential to succeed on a surface on which he gained plenty of experience in his formative teenage years.

Murray begins his latest clay-court campaign at this week's Monte Carlo Masters, where nine of the world's top 10 players compete in the first event of the European outdoor season.

"If he's stronger physically this year and has greater mental strength, I think he'll be much more competitive," Sanchez said. "You have to have a fighting spirit to win on clay. He won't win matches the same way that he does on hard courts. On clay you have to be tougher in the mind, tougher in the heart and tougher physically."

Sanchez, who founded his academy in partnership with his fellow Spanish professional Sergio Casal 11 years ago, believes that it can take time to adjust to clay. "Most of today's players compete on hard courts for most of the year," he said. "On hard courts the ball comes through to you. You wait for the ball and maybe 80 per cent of the shots you play on the back foot.

"On clay, because the ball stops, you have to move to it. That's the most difficult adjustment. Normally that comes naturally to people who grow up playing on clay, but today even players like [Rafael] Nadal can take time to adjust and make mistakes. I noticed it when he played in the Davis Cup on clay recently.

Sanchez added: "On other surfaces, when you serve you expect to dominate and to finish off the point, whether it's from the baseline or at the net, but on clay you know that your opponent is always going to have the chance to get the ball back.

"Clay is more demanding because you have to make more effort. On hard courts you can win points with what I'd call normal shots because your opponent doesn't have time to get behind the ball. On clay he usually has time to get there. You actually have to play more correctly – you have to hit better shots – to win the point."

What are the main qualities that a clay-court player needs? "All the top players know how to play on clay tactically and how to hit their shots," Sanchez said. "The mental side is about 60 per cent of it. The heart and drive will be about 20 per cent and the physical side will be about 20 per cent. You have to have the mentality and to be prepared to suffer all the time."

At the top level of the men's tour no player has won more matches in the last nine months than Murray. He has lost only twice this year and won three titles, taking his career tally to 11. All were won on hard courts, but Sanchez, twice a doubles champion at the French Open, sees no reason why Murray should not perform well on clay.

"The way he moves and covers the court so well is actually one of the qualities that makes a lot of players successful on clay," Sanchez said. "I think the way he recovers balls and covers the court shows that, provided he's tougher on clay, he could be challenging the top players. Obviously hard courts suit him best but he's a very good all-round player so he can play well on any surface."

Sanchez points out that many of the best players on fast courts in recent years could also enjoy success on clay. "Players like Stefan Edberg and Pat Rafter played well on clay because they were so good technically. They were aggressive players, but they were also very correct players, which is what you need to be on clay. Even when they attacked the net it was often very hard to pass them."

If Murray needs an example of a fast-court specialist who proved he could perform on clay, he need look no further than Tim Henman, who reached the semi-finals of the French Open. "In his early years he struggled a little physically because he wasn't strong enough, but as he became stronger he became a very good player on clay," Sanchez said. "He didn't change his game because he knew what he did best, coming to the net and playing volleys."

Murray's misfortunes on clay

Monte Carlo Masters 2006

Murray is beaten in three sets by Jean-René Lisnard, the world No 154, after suffering cramp during a three-hour first-round battle.

French Open 2006

Gaël Monfils beats Murray in five sets in the first round after the Scot suffers back problems.

Monte Carlo Masters 2007

Murray injures his back playing doubles the night before his scheduled first-round singles match and is forced to pull out.

Hamburg Masters 2007

Murray hurts his wrist against Filippo Volandri and misses the next three months, including Wimbledon and French Open.

Paul Newman