With Andy Murray’s tournament victory at the Miami Masters on Sunday, the curtain fell on the first discernible phase of the ATP season. The young man roaring closer and closer to the world No. 3 ranking may wish that he could feel solid tennis court beneath the soles of his shoes until Christmas comes, but unfortunately for him, the tour schedule dictates otherwise.
Until now, aside from a series of clay tournaments in Latin America going on in the background at the same time as the European indoor events of February, the year has been all about the hard courts. For the next two months, focus shifts decisively to red dirt and some of Europe’s most iconic cities. The main clay season is an action-packed one, bursting at the seams with Masters 1000 events, a 500 event and of course the climax at the year’s second Grand Slam in Paris. Despite lingering illness, Murray has undoubtedly been one of the dominant forces in the early part of the season, but the shift to clay brings new challenges for the ever-improving Scot.
The only exception to the tour’s otherwise exclusive presence in Europe over the next two months is this week, as relatively minor tournaments are held in Houston, Texas and Casablanca, Morocco. These 250 events are mainly attended by lesser lights of the game’s elite as the main contenders for the big honours are in preparation for a full assault at the Monte Carlo Masters as of next Monday. Following the glamorous tournament in the principality, Barcelona stages a 500 event before the shaded courts of Rome host another Masters extravaganza. In the following week, that of May 4th-10th, several 250 titles will be contested around the continent, notably including Serbia’s first ATP event in Belgrade. From there, it’s straight back into the thick of the main action at the spectacular new ‘Magic Box’ complex in the Madrid Masters. If all this wasn’t enough, a short lull then precedes the biggest clay tournament of them all – Roland Garros, otherwise known as the French Open, rounds off the dirt-based fun.
As a fan of any player other than Rafael Nadal, you could be forgiven for wondering if clay titles are worth contending when the near-invincible Majorcan is in the field. Such has been his dominance of other surfaces in the months since his latest Roland Garros win, it may be even scarier to be reminded of just how good he is on the red stuff. With a career record of 159 wins to 14 losses with clay under his feet (12 of those losses occurring before his dominance of the surface began in 2005), it is nearly inconceivable that the world No. 1 should lose whenever he takes to the court. However, this doesn’t mean that the next nine weeks are pointless in terms of predicting title winners. As an Andy Murray fan, these have the potential to be very interesting times.
Murray has a good grounding on clay, having made the decision at the age of 15 to move out of his comfort zone and attend the Sánchez-Casal tennis academy in Barcelona. However, his professional results on the surface thus far have been, in relative terms, little to speak of. The Scot’s first senior match took place on clay, ending in defeat to Jan Hernych, at the ATP Barcelona event in 2005. A few weeks later, he burst into the public consciousness as a wild card entrant at Wimbledon and we all know what has happened since then. His rise to world No. 4 has seen him become one of the most feared opponents on the tour-dominating hard courts, but his clay record may be a blot that he wishes to correct. He has an overall 11-14 win/loss tally on the surface, going no further than the 3rd round in any tournament played.
Murray’s first full shot at the clay swing was a disappointing one, seeing him progress beyond the first round at only the former Hamburg Masters out of all the main events. However, this period coincided with a wider bout of inconsistency in his game and was perhaps understandable given that it was his maiden assault on the sport’s most demanding surface. 2007 saw his clay schedule ruined by injuries, including the horror wrist twinge sustained in Hamburg that ruled him out of the French Open and Wimbledon. By 2008, he was again suffering from inconsistency and his fans feared for the direction of his career under his still-fledgling team of coaches and physios. Despite this, Murray’s performances and know-how on the clay seemed to improve as the tournaments went by. Under the tutelage of Alex Corretja, the Spanish former world No. 2 and twice French Open runner-up, the young Briton appeared to be mastering the red dirt that had so far seemed to scramble his otherwise mercurial game. With Corretja on board again for the 2009 season and with a more powerful role within the setup, Murray appears ready to truly make his mark.
Looking deeper into the statistics of Murray’s 2008 clay record, it is interesting to note the opponents that he faced in each tournament. Having overcome the dangerous Feliciano Lopez and the clay specialist Filippo Volandri in Monte Carlo, Murray was emphatically stopped in his tracks by world No. 3 Novak Djokovic. At his outing in Rome, Murray battled past Juan Martin del Potro in an ill-tempered late-night affair before being dumped out by Stanislas Wawrinka, the eventual runner-up and no slouch on the surface. Hamburg (replaced this year in the calendar by Madrid) saw Murray beat Dmitry Tursunov and Gilles Simon before losing, inevitably, to Rafael Nadal.
In some ways, Roland Garros was Murray’s most impressive tournament of the clay period. Having finally seen off the young French wildcard Jonathan Eysseric after an almighty scare, Murray dismantled the very capable Jose Acasuso in the second round before competing with the clay specialist Nicolas Almagro. At one set all, the match appeared to be in the balance, but Almagro’s expertise told in the end.
When considering the opponents that put an end to Murray’s participation in each tournament, it is clear to see that he was beaten by only the very best. This time around, with an improved ranking of No. 4 (or perhaps even No. 3 as the clay season progresses), he will avoid the likes of Federer and Nadal until at least the semi-finals, while not meeting Novak Djokovic at all until a potential final. This improved ranking will also allow him the luxury of a first round bye in the three Masters tournaments, giving him a boost into the second round without lifting a racquet.
Since Wimbledon of last year, Murray has been closing the ranking gap on Novak Djokovic. With the gap now smaller than ever after Murray’s latest tournament victory in Miami, the next few weeks could see him finally become the first British player ever to hold the world No. 3 position. Djokovic has a large number of points to defend from last season, specifically those accrued through semi-final appearances in Monte Carlo, Hamburg and the French Open, as well as a tournament win in Rome. With the Serb’s level of performance and form down on last year, when he looked to be charging to the top of the game, coupled to the fact that Murray has no more than third round points to defend in any tournament, the stage looks set for an exchange of the number 3 and 4 rankings. Indeed, the changing of the guard could happen as early as next week: if Murray can equal Djokovic’s Monte Carlo performance, he will assume the No. 3 position on the following Monday. From then on, the rest of the clay season affords an excellent opportunity to widen that gap beyond Djokovic and gain ground on current world No. 2 Roger Federer, who himself has many points to defend over the coming weeks.
With the clay surface seemingly more a feature of the Continent and South America, the impression is that the British view this time of the calendar as a lull in proceedings before the apparently more important grass season and Wimbledon. Barring a surprise run to the Roland Garros semi-finals, Tim Henman made little impact on the surface, while Sue Barker’s Slam win at the same event is often forgotten. Having attended a clay tournament at Vina del Mar, Chile, in February 2008, I developed a little more respect for the dirt myself. The nature of the surface slows play down and allows time for shots to be made. Consequently, rallies are longer and there is more of an emphasis on point construction and tactics. This makes for potentially long and gruelling matches, but appeals to the tennis connoisseur through its production of cerebral and imaginative play. Someone like Rafael Nadal has thrived so impressively on clay because his natural defence is so good. While he can return most balls blasted at him, he also makes so few errors, eventually wearing his opponent down and drawing a mistake to earn a point. Andy Murray’s game, sometimes derided as too passive and defensive, relying on errors from the opponent, seems well suited to clay for the reasons above.
With the Monte Carlo Masters beginning on Monday, we do not have long to wait before the speculation can end and the analysis of Murray's 2009 clay court credentials can begin.