Andy Murray and clay have never been a match made in heaven.
The Brit's typically great defense is sloppy and ineffective on the clay, and his footwork on the surface leaves a lot to be desired. The two-time major champion is only 56-35 in his career on the dirt, and he's never made a clay-court final in his entire career. There have been moments, such as his 2011 Rome Masters semifinal loss to Novak Djokovic, where he's looked a stroke away from clay-court greatness. But, inevitably, he always struggles to find his footing soon after.
The story was the same for Murray this week. On Wednesday at the Madrid Masters, Murray was impressive in taking out seasoned clay-courter Nicolas Almagro in the second round. It was his first match on the tour in a month and seemed to be a good omen for his clay prospects.
But on Thursday, Murray was brought back down to earth after losing a lackluster match to No. 46 Santiago Giraldo, 6-3 6-2. He was downright tame during the loss, showing none of the visceral, self-berating brand of competitiveness that has helped him fight through matches in the past. It was a dumbfounding showcase that raised doubts not only about Murray's current form, but also his clay-court future.
According to the AFP (via The Times of India), Murray told reporters after his loss to Giraldo that consistency is still his biggest problem:
It's tough because some days just now I'm playing well and then the next day I'm not playing well at all. Even within matches I'm playing really well for periods and then other times not great at all.
I need to become more consistent, my base level has to stay the same for a lot longer and that isn't necessarily going out there and practicing loads of stuff on the court, that is something where I need to be mentally stronger and a bit more switched on for longer periods in matches.
Murray's inconsistency isn't a new problem, and it certainly isn't unique to clay courts. He's been known to have more dramatic lapses during the season than the other top players, particularly in smaller tournaments. Since winning Wimbledon 10 months ago, however, Murray has seen more downs than ups.
After struggling in the U.S. Open Series, Murray pulled the plug on his 2013 season in September for "minor" back surgery. He's yet to make a final in seven events this season and has fallen all the way to No. 8 in the world rankings. To make matters worse, his coach, Ivan Lendl, split with him in March, and he has yet to find a replacement in his camp.
This week, he played with a heavy heart after his friend, Elena Baltacha, a British tennis player who retired just last year, passed away due to liver cancer on Sunday.
While his variable results are understandable given the circumstances, Murray plays in an era when the top players are a threat every week on every surface. In order to stay at the top of the rankings, he needs to be able to pick up points during clay season.
Murray typically opts not to play smaller clay-court events, which means that when he does play, he is usually facing Top 50 players like Giraldo, many of whom are much comfortable on the surface than he is. That can certainly be a recipe for disaster.
Russell Fuller, a BBC tennis correspondent, found Murray's loss to Giraldo worrisome as well. Fuller is concerned about the upcoming majors for the Brit.
One player may have two Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal in his collection, but the other was in the groove on his favourite surface, and Santiago Giraldo was not much troubled even when Murray started to play more aggressively.
A strong run at the French Open looks unlikely on current form, and Murray needs to find some confidence and consistency very soon - he begins the defence of his Wimbledon title in a little over six weeks.
I don't think that it's time yet to panic about Murray's Wimbledon chances, as he's struggled on clay many times before and then succeeded on grass. But it's not looking good for the French Open.
Murray is 18-6 at Roland Garros in his career. It's the only major where the talented Brit hasn't made the final. He's reached the quarterfinals three times and made the semifinals in 2011, but he's never beaten a Top 10 player on the Paris clay.
Like another Andy before him, Murray is going to decide how much energy he wants to put into the clay season going forward. Andy Roddick famously hated the dirt, and after giving it one more push when he started working with Larry Stefanki in 2009, Roddick primarily used the clay season late in his career to get healthy and train for the grass and hard courts where he succeeded.
Murray is a much better clay-court player than Roddick was, but as he gets older and injuries become more difficult to come back from, he's going to have to figure out what his priorities are. He's unlikely to ever get to the No. 1 ranking in this era without points during this part of the season, but it would be hard to blame him if he focussed on the majors he had the best chances of winning.
He's unlikely to ever win Roland Garros, but it's not quite time to give up hope for Murray on clay unless he gives up on himself first.