It was an injury always exacerbated by the sliding, twisting movement demanded of the clay swing, and come September, he took the tough decision to have surgery.
Murray had always enjoyed some success on clay, it is true, but things certainly looked up after that surgery. In 2014, he reached the semis at the French Open, and did so again the next year before reaching his first Roland Garros final last year. He went on to win his first clay title in Munich, backed it up with the Madrid Masters, and last year he won in Rome, too.
Murray, the No1 seed in Monte-Carlo this week, was not, by any measure then, a weak clay player—and the same might be said of the No3 seed, Stan Wawrinka.
Much of the Swiss man’s early success came on the red stuff: His first three titles; his first Masters final, Rome; and eventually his first Masters title, here in Monte Carlo in 2014. Wawrinka had turned himself into a growing and formidable force as he matured into his 30s, a constant among the top men in the rankings, and eventually he also added Roland Garros to his Australian Open title.
But both he and Murray, for all their success on clay, came up against true aficionados on the red stuff in the third round of the Monte-Carlo draw.
Both would be first meetings: for Murray against fellow 29-year-old Albert Ramos-Vinolas and for Wawrinka against 31-year-old Pablo Cuevas.
And the prowess of the two challengers was writ large in their previous titles. All six of Cuevas’s titles, including Sao Paulo this year, were on clay. Also a late bloomer, the single-hander reached a career-high No19 only last year. Meanwhile Ramos-Vinolas was at his own career-high of 24 after his best ever season, with a final in Sao Paulo and semis in Quito and Rio, plus the quarters in Marrakech only last week.
It was Murray, playing only his second match since he lost in Indian Wells a month ago with a wrist injury, who opened proceedings against Ramos-Vinolas, in what would be a gripping encounter.
The rallies were immediately long and probing, a 24-stroke exchange taking them to 30-30, two more long rallies bringing up the first of two deuces, but Murray finally held after seven minutes.
Now the top seed was finding his rhythm and variety, testing Ramos-Vinolas with pitch-perfect assorted drop shots. It earned him five break points, the last a net put-away after 20 minutes of wonderful tennis.
However, Ramos-Vinolas continued to press hard, firing to the wide forehand wing, and a deft forehand slice from Murray clipped the net to go wide for a break-back point: The Spaniard hammered a forehand winner to break.
That seemed only to stimulate Murray, and his variety of angle, spin and pace—and yet more winning drop shots—earned him another break, 3-1.
The Spanish left-hander gave as good as he got, producing some extreme angles to work three break chances, and he converted with a looping forehand pass: a fourth break in succession, 3-2, after 35 minutes.
Then it was another love break, 4-2, but both men continued to pepper the lines all around the court, now taking the ball early, now chasing down defensively, constantly testing the other. At last, though, Murray began to get some leverage on his serve, firing two aces on his way to a 5-2 lead.
A first double fault for Ramos-Vinolas brought up set point, and an outright Murray backhand winner from the baseline sealed it, 6-2. A tally of 18 winners to 10 errors proved the quality on the Briton’s side.
It was the Spaniard who struck first in the second set, producing some extreme cross-court angles, and he broke for a 2-1 lead. He then held to love with a drop-shot the equal to any of Murray’s, broke again for 5-2, and benefitted from a growing number of errors from Murray to hold for the set, 6-2.
The world No1 regrouped quickly in the third set, broke for 2-0 and broke to love for 4-0 as the Spaniard’s game seemed to fall apart. Ramos-Vinolas looked desperately to his box for inspiration. And it came, direct from the racket of Murray: a love break back, followed by a failure to capitalise on two break points in the sixth game despite a couple of touches of brilliance.
Remarkably, Ramos-Vinolas broke again in the seventh. Perhaps Murray’s elbow was feeling the effects of so long and demanding a match, but the Spaniard took his chances with a couple of bold net finishes.
Murray stopped the rot from 0-40 down to finally get a hold, 5-4, but it was still Ramos-Vinolas making the running—12 winners in the set and counting—and he broke once more to serve for the match, survived deuce, and took victory, 7-5, to reach his first Masters quarter-final.
Ramos-Vinolas will next play No5 seed Marin Cilic, who beat No9 seed Tomas Berdych, 6-2, 7-6(0).
And what of the other clay maestro, Cuevas? In both the first and second sets, the man from Uruguay broke early, and Wawrinka could not work even a single break-back point in an hour and a half of attacking clay-court tennis from Cuevas.
The No16 seed from South America went on to score his first win over a top-four player, 6-4, 6-4, and next plays No11 seed Lucas Pouille, who was handed a retirement at 3-0 up by Adrian Mannarino.
In the bottom half, what many expected to be a close tussle between the nine-time Monte-Carlo champion Rafael Nadal and the young German tipped for the top, Alexander Zverev, turned into a 68-minute rout by the Spaniard, 6-1, 6-1. Nadal faced not a single break point, winning 59 points to 33 from the Zverev. No doubt the young German will remember his 20th birthday for some time.
Also in this half, No10 seed David Goffin came back from a break down in the third set to beat friend and rival Dominic Thiem, 7-6, 4-6, 6-3.
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