A Very Difficult Opponent

Monte Carlo Masters 1000, Semifinals

Nadal d. Murray, 6/4 2/6 6/1

Rafael Nadal has moved through to his seventh consecutive Monte Carlo final, a necessary step towards his inevitable seventh Monte Carlo title, but the real story today was Andy Murray. Given recent form, this result was downright gobsmacking. Winning would have been a figurative punch in the mouth, but as unrealistic expectations go, pushing Nadal in the semifinal already skirts the boundary of reason. Few expected Murray to navigate the first round, the only seed ever to fall to a bye. It has been that kind of season.

Try though I might, I cannot escape the conclusion that Murray’s most fervent wish right now is to be the underdog, which is a trite way of saying he wants to be left the hell alone. The final at Melbourne Park mostly supports this contention – it was supposed to be close – though the onus of expectation had grown burdensome even in the rounds before, against David Ferrer and Alexandr Dolgopolov respectively. His abject efforts following Melbourne came against players it was assumed he should beat, and, in the cases of Young and Bogomolov Jnr, to beat senseless. However, come Monte Carlo no one expected much out of Murray anymore, other than continuing disappointment. How low, wondered flak-happy fans, can he go?

In playing Nadal so close today, and blitzing that second set, Murray has reminded us that it wasn’t so long ago he was considered a realistic contender on clay. We can probably discount Nadal’s assertion a few years back that the Scot was his biggest threat, since Nadal regards nearly every player who has ever hefted a racquet to be a very difficult opponent, from Rene Lacoste on. But even those basing their assessments in reality felt that Murray’s game should translate well to the slow stuff, courtesy of his saintly patience and excellent movement. The big result has yet to materialise, but there’s little shame in that, since Federer tends to claim those rare clay events that Nadal doesn’t.

Murray’s backhand is amongst the finest in tennis, as effective in its way as those of Novak Djokovic and David Nalbandian. Whereas theirs are technically silken, Murray’s is rough-woven canvas, basic and functional. It is hardly less effective, but it looks like anyone can do it, even though almost no one can. Like Federer’s serve, the simplicity of the stroke disguises its immense variety, the way apparently identical swings yield profound variations in torque and pace, and how effortlessly he can change direction. Nadal regards it warily, and for once he isn’t being disingenuous. Denied his strongest play, the Spaniard is compelled to prise the court apart with different tools. It is to his credit that he invariably works it out, and today, again, he did. Tomorrow he will undoubtedly claim his 19th Masters event. It’s good to see him back on clay. But it’s even better to see Murray back at all.

The full match, and many others from this tournament, can be downloaded from the always excellent El Rincón del Tenis.

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