Just as it seemed Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal were headed for a semifinal showdown at the 2014 Mutua Madrid Open, the anticipation was released like the hiss from a newly opened can of tennis balls. Except, inside was the usual product: a worn-out storyline.
We should have known better than to have expected that this match would actually happen, even though the tennis gods had already grabbed Madrid’s tournament bracket and blotted out fellow stars Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka. Sure enough, Murray lost in (maybe not so) surprising fashion 6-3, 6-2 to streaking journeyman Santiago Giraldo.
This is not exactly a supposed sports curse in the annals of Fred Perry. No, Murray vs. Nadal is a star-crossed scenario that may no longer be cosmically possible.
It was October 2011, and Murray had defeated Nadal at Tokyo to snap a personal five-game losing streak against the Spaniard. There was no rivalry then, and trailing 13-5 in head-to-head meetings, the onus was on Murray to challenge Nadal. Could they build anything to resemble the battles these two had with Federer and Djokovic?
Since that final meeting, the Murray-Ivan Lendl team was born and dissolved. Think about that. Murray and Nadal never faced each other with Coach Lendl looking on from the sidelines. It was as if Ancient Rome and Carthage had never made contact.
Murray and Nadal would both lose heartbreaking matches to Djokovic in the 2012 Australian Open. If Murray had pulled out his semifinal match, could they have played a special final to be remembered? In a way, it was appropriate that it was Djokovic who denied them both the title. Djokovic, finishing off his best year of tennis, would usually be their primary obstacle.
The emerging new Murray was even set to battle Nadal in the semifinal of the 2012 Sony Open in Miami. This time, it was fate, or rather Nadal’s perpetual knee tendinitis, that prompted him to pull out of the match. This walkover would be as close as they would get to playing each other in the Murray-Lendl years. It should have happened, but tennis gods have their reasons.
Then came a series of opposing seasons mirrored only by planetary forces. When one player was streaking through the daylight, the other was lingering in darkness:
- Nadal tore through the 2012 clay-court season while Murray was troubled by injuries.
- Murray’s first glorious Grand Slam-run began in June 2012, just as Nadal disappeared beneath his Mallorcan haven.
- Nadal returned for his annual conquest on clay in 2013, while Murray licked his wounds and prepared for greener opportunities in London.
- Murray won 2013 Wimbledon! Nadal lost in the first round. If the pattern was not clear by this time, then tennis fans were in denial.
- Nadal scorched North America with a triple sweep. Murray floundered, then had to get back surgery. He would miss the next few months of action as Nadal claimed the No. 1 ranking.
- Murray and Nadal have since played below their own standards of excellence, and potential meetings might become happenstance.
Blame Eris, point fingers at Loki, but above all understand that the chance to forge a mini-rivalry will not happen unless both players are at their best. Even so, it will also require the right time and place.
Stars Must Align
In the early 1980s, John McEnroe and Mats Wilander had rivalries, but not with each other. Their favorite surfaces, grass and clay respectively, meant that they would rarely vie for championship trophies at the same time.
Clay king Thomas Muster and serve-and-volley extraordinaire Patrick Rafter only met three times. Oddly enough, Rafter won their two meetings on clay. They often pursued titles in different regions of the world.
Sometimes rivalries perhaps should have happened but did not, despite surface similarities. Andre Agassi and Gustavo Kuerten met 11 times, but never on clay. Agassi was the superior hard-court player and Kuerten never could contend past the quarterfinals at Grand Slam venues outside Roland Garros. They only met one time in Grand Slam play, the 1999 Wimbledon quarterfinals.
So it might take a surprise run from Murray at Rome or Paris. Maybe the (un)luck of the draw will pit him against Nadal in the quarterfinals.
Perhaps Nadal will have a renaissance on grass. If he is to contend for the Wimbledon title, it’s still unknown if Murray will find his best confidence and form. A lot has to go right for both players.
The North American hard-court tour seems the most likely place for their next meeting. Nadal will look to defend 4,000 points, while Murray will hope for momentum during his favorite time of the year.
Tennis fans hoping for this meeting may feel like Charlie Brown taking yet another futile kick at a football. Maybe if they look away, they will get an unexpected meeting, something that defies conventional timing with Nadal and Murray.
Just don’t pitch in any wagers. The tennis gods are playing with loaded dice after all.