French Open 2015: Andy Murray rises to clay challenge to delight of Paris fans

Andy Murray begins his French Open campaign with a straight-sets victory over Argentina's Facundo Arguello

For a man who has won Wimbledon and Olympic gold, has gone all the way to the title at the US Open and been runner-up in at the Australian Open four times, Andy Murray’s record on clay has not lacked the same credentials.

Clay, and the very different physical demands it makes on a tennis player’s body—particularly to lower back and upper legs—was a constant challenge to the Briton, who wrestled with back problems at the best of times. Even so, he twice made the quarter-finals at Roland Garros, and twice more reached the semi-finals.

Yet after 10 years on the pro tour, he could not get the clay monkey off his back with a title, not even a final run—until this year.

The beginning of the end of his clay woes began, ironically, with his withdrawal from the clay Major in 2013. He would return for the grass season but after battling through the US Open Series and returning to clay one last time to play in Davis Cup, he resorted to back surgery.

As he worked his way back during 2014, he slipped to No8 in the rankings, but come Roland Garros, he was rising to the clay challenge, grinding through a tough schedule and tough opposition to a semi appointment with Nadal: With two five-setters in his body already, the outcome was inevitable. But come the hard, indoor courts at the end of the season, plus new coach Amelie Mauresmo, the titles and ranking returned.

By this year’s clay swing, Murray already had a final run in Australia and Miami, delayed his start on the red stuff to marry and then get plenty of practice, and in the space of a week, won two clay titles against both scheduling and weather odds—and against the man who had taken him to 12-10 in the final set at last year’s Roland Garros, Philipp Kohlschreiber.

Murray, then, arrived in Paris with a spring in his clay step, a 10-match winning streak on the surface that included the Madrid Masters, a victory over Nadal, and with Kohlschreiber in the other half of the draw. The stars, it seems, may finally be aligning for Murray at his least successful Major.

As luck would have it, he opened his campaign at the same time as three of the four other Britons in the main Paris draw. Heather Watson played French wildcard Mathilde Johansson, who had won their only previous match at Wimbledon in 2011, but with Watson ranked No45 against the 228-ranked Johansson, she went through to set up a rather less straight-forward contest against Sloane Stephens.

The 143-ranked Konta’s chances were tougher, drawn as she was against No88 Denisa Allertova. Kyle Edmund, aged 20, took on 35-year-old French qualifier Stephane Robert in pursuit of his first Major match-win. His chances were fair: The 558-ranked Robert had yet to win a match this year.

But Murray was as good as a shoo-in against Argentine qualifier, the No139 ranked Facundo Arguello, though from that point on, his draw would be a testing one. The second round could bring the huge talent of the big Canadian Vasek Pospisil, ranked 51. And unless compatriot Edmund had a storming run to the third round, Murray could expect to find the young and explosive Nick Kyrgios waiting. Next in line came John Isner or David Goffin and a possible quarter-final against former French Open finalist David Ferrer.

Murray and his clay form, then, could be sorely tested before he even reached the ultimate test: nine-time champion Nadal or world No1 Novak Djokovic. And all that before a shot at the title match. He was, therefore, pragmatic about his chances, despite admitting he was in the best clay form of his career.

“It’s probably the best I have played on clay, for sure. I mean, I never really felt particularly comfortable on the surface. Sometimes by the time I got to the French Open I started to feel good, but I mean obviously winning tournaments and beating good players helps with the confidence… I feel like I’m moving well. I feel a lot freer on the court. Body feels good. That’s positive.

“I would love to be in that position to have made the semis. For me, that’s a great result at this event… hope I’m there. There are certainly no guarantees that will be the case. I will have to play really, really well to get there.”

But to begin at the beginning, and to Arguello. It proved to be just the kind of entertainment that the Parisian crowd loves. Murray was in expressive, all-court form, and Arguello played his part with lobs, drops, passing shots and more that brought out the best in the Briton.

After a long, tough opening game to fight off break point and hold serve, Murray broke for a 3-0 lead, but the Argentine broke back to level the set. It did not take long for the Briton to reassert himself with another break for 5-3, and with 40 minutes down, he took the set, 6-3.

By the second set, Murray was moving even better, retrieving with great athleticism, but going on the offensive at the slightest opportunity.

He broke to love in the fifth game and again in the ninth to take to take the set, 6-3, and he then accelerated away as the huge shadow of Philipp Chartrier’s roof raced across the court. A break in the second game, another in the sixth and he was the winner, 6-1 in an hour and three-quarters—and the crowd cheered him like one of their own. Had he enjoyed it as much as they had?

“The first set I didn’t feel like it was great. The start was very windy on the court and cold, so it was quite slow conditions. I found it difficult at the beginning. Then I felt, when the wind died down a bit in the second and third set, that the level of tennis was better. It was more entertaining rallies and we played some good points. Because he moves extremely well, when he was in defensive positions he came up with some good dropshots and lobs. Yeah, there were some good points.”

Next up will be Pospisil or last week’s Geneva Open runner-up Joao Sousa, but in this kind of form, Murray looks set to stay in Paris a bit longer yet.

While Murray was heading to press, compatriots Konta and Edmund were extending their matches into the dusk, the only remaining contests in play. French roars of support reverberated around the grounds, cheering on the 35-year-old Robert against 20-year-old Edmund. The Frenchman had taken the first set, Edmund the second and third but Robert broke early in the fourth and broke again to level the match as the clock approached 9pm. It had some way to run.

However Konta, who had shown real fighting spirit to come back from a 7-6(17) first set to take the second, went down an early break in the third, and finally lost, 6-2, after more than two and half hours.

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