Andy Murray’s ‘expectations are high’ as he embraces ‘tricky’ transition to clay in Madrid
Andy Murray has been practising in Madrid for several days and is top seed for the first time in a tournament that he particularly enjoys
For a man who won 31 titles and reached 18 more finals through his first decade on the professional tour without so much as making one final on clay, Andy Murray has certainly turned things around.
Indeed, so confident is he on the red stuff now that he has begun his campaign at the Mutua Madrid Masters saying: “My expectation are high.”
And why not? Madrid marked the place where he finally won a clay Masters in 2015, and he reached the final last year, too—on both occasions facing the best that tennis had to offer in Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
But it was not always so, even though Murray spent some of his formative years training and living in Barcelona. However, Murray’s lack of success was due, in large part, to a chronic back problem that eventually forced him to pull out of both Rome and Roland Garros in 2013 and undergo back surgery later that year.
The rewards followed soon after. In 2015, he had already won his first clay title in his first clay final in Munich before lifting the trophy in Madrid. And last year, he impressed still more, beginning with a semi run in Monte-Carlo, the finals in Madrid and Roland Garros, and that Rome title.
The rest of 2016 is history: undefeated on grass, winning his second Olympic gold, unbeaten through the last five tournaments of the year, claiming the No1 ranking with his first World Tour Finals trophy.
This year, in truth, the Briton has yet to really hit that same exceptional form, though he had some early successes on the hard court of Doha and Dubai. But in the events where he hoped to build up points to stoke his place at the top of the rankings—Indian Wells and Miami—he did not win a single match after picking up an elbow injury.
On his return, he won his opener in Monte-Carlo but admitted that his elbow was still sore and that meant his serving was not yet at 100 percent. As a result, he took a wild card into Barcelona, made the semi-finals, and fitted in a couple of long, testing matches.
Ahead of Madrid, he explained just how valuable his return to Barcelona has been.
“Yeah, Barcelona went really well for me. Got three matches in three days. It would have been nice to have played an extra one or two—that would have been perfect. But I had the long match with Ramos [Albert Ramos-Vinolas], it was like three hours. Then to come out and play again the next day, I actually felt pretty good. I played some decent stuff there.”
Murray has been practising in Madrid for several days, seeded No1 for the first time in a tournament that he particularly enjoys. The clay at the higher altitude of the Spanish capital plays rather differently from that in Monte-Carlo, Rome and Roland Garros. Not that the lively conditions have changed the line-up of champions who have dominated here since its switch to clay, just as they have dominated the rest of the Masters circuit: Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer have shared the honours with Murray.
As luck—for Murray—would have it, the only two of them playing this year have fallen in the other half of the draw—though two previous finalists, Tomas Berdych and Stan Wawrinka, could contest the quarter-final to determine who faces Murray in the semis.
However, more important than the courts—and even perhaps the draw—is how Murray’s recovery was going.
“I’m happy with where I’m at physically just now, and my body feels good. Yeah, I need to try and keep it that way.
“Practice here the last few days has been very good. I’m happy with how I’m playing. I’m starting to move better, feel like I served well the last few days, which is an important part of my game… Obviously haven’t served so well in Barcelona, Monte-Carlo. It’s not easy at this level to win matches if you’re getting broken a lot. Hopefully I will serve a bit better this week.
“Obviously, like I say, with such an important period of the year, so many big events coming right after one another, it’s important to be in good nick. I feel like I am just now.”
So just how different does Murray feel about the clay since opting for surgery in 2013? It was, after all, a drastic step for any athlete to take at the peak of his powers—and by then, he had won two Majors and Olympic gold, plus nine Masters titles. He admitted that the twisting and sliding movement demanded by clay was still testing, but now he had few problems with adapting.
“I think at the beginning of the clay season, it’s always a bit trickier for me than the other surfaces just because the movement isn’t as natural on this surface for me as it is on the hard and the grass courts. It takes me time. I need to work on that each year when I come back onto it a lot before I feel comfortable doing it.
“The last couple of years, once I’ve got that part of my game right, then I feel like clay does actually suit my game well. You know, the results the last couple of years would suggest that.
“But definitely the beginning of each clay court season, it takes a few weeks to adjust to it. But my back has been really good on the clay the last two, three years. It’s been no issue this year at all. I’m really happy about that.”
Murray, after his storming clay swing last year, which propelled him to No1, clearly has a lot of points to defend, though he does have a breathing space against his closest rival, Djokovic. The Serb has also carried a couple of injuries into 2017, and has also fallen short of what tennis has become used to, including a second-round loss at the Australian Open.
Indeed, it is not Djokovic but Nadal and Federer who have mopped up the big titles thus far this year, and both have modest points to defend for the rest of the season after missing extensive stretches with injury.
But Murray has high hopes for the coming months.
“Yeah, expectations are high. I want to do well the next few weeks. In many ways, it’s the most important part of the year. There’s a lot of big tournaments that come very quickly, one after the other. Obviously, the grass-court season is always an important period of the year for me, but yeah, I’m motivated. My expectations are high for the next few months. I’m looking forward to it.”
Murray opens his Madrid campaign against wild card Marius Copil, who came through a punishing first-round match of almost three hours’ duration. Ranked 104, he has won just three matche this year.
Murray’s first seed is scheduled to be the fast-improving Lucas Pouille, but the Frenchman has pulled out of his doubles match with a viral infection. Also in this section, Richard Gasquet has been replace by lucky loser Borna Coric.
British postscript: The only other British man in the draw, Dan Evans, lost his opener against Robin Haase, 7-5, 6-2, while Johanna Konta, who lost her late-night marathon in the singles draw on Saturday, also lost her opening doubles match. Only Murray’s brother, Jamie, remains in contention in Madrid, where he and Bruno Soares are No3 seeds.