When you think of the French Open, Andy Murray is likely not the first player to come to your mind.
However, perhaps it's time to give the Brit a little more credit on the dirt. On Monday, Murray beat Spaniard Fernando Verdasco 6-4, 7-5, 7-6 to advance to his fourth Roland Garros quarterfinal, his third straight. (He didn't make the quarterfinals in 2013, but that's because he didn't play the French Open that year.)
Murray might not be at home on the clay court as much as his Big Four partners Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer are, but he's no Andy Roddick on the surface, either. And Murray seems to look better and better on the clay as the years go by.
Murray is playing clay court tennis of the highest order— Neil Harman (@NeilHarmanTimes) June 2, 2014
He looked downright dangerous in his fourth-round win over No. 24 Verdasco, pummeling balls from the baseline, pulling the trigger when necessary and moving around with (relative) grace.
BBC tennis correspondent Russell Fuller noted that Murray is seeming to have more and more fun on clay as the season goes on:
Murray enjoyed this duel of thrilling rallies so much, you started to wonder whether he was tempted by the prospect of a fourth set.
He moved very well and hit the ball with real conviction: if he can improve his serve and become more ruthless with all the break points he generates, he will be a formidable competitor for the very best on clay.
A couple of months ago, it would have been hard to pick Murray to make the Roland Garros quarterfinals. After the 2013 U.S. Open, Murray took the remainder of the season off due to back surgery, and he has struggled to find his form this season, dropping all the way to No. 8 in the rankings.
Including this French Open so far, he's 25-9 with no finals and doesn't have a Top 10 win in 2014. In March, Ivan Lendl, who had led the Brit to two major titles, parted ways with Murray. Since then, Murray has been searching for a coach, but much to the dismay of the British press, he hasn't found the right one yet.
Murray's comeback was promising to begin with. He made it to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, where he lost to an in-form Roger Federer, and he then led the British Davis Cup team to two wins over the United States in their Davis Cup tie in February.
But it's been rough sailing since then. In five of his next six events, he lost to players ranked outside of the Top 10, including Marin Cilic, Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic and Santiago Giraldo.
Murray revealing a bit of his tennis philosophy: "Defense is the most important thing in any sport."— Tom Perrotta (@TomPerrotta) June 2, 2014
It seemed unlikely he would find his footing on clay. Despite his love for defense, Murray hasn't had the success on clay that he's had on other surfaces. He's never beaten a Top Eight player on dirt, and he's never even been to a clay-court final. He made the semifinals of the French Open back in 2011, but this is still the only major where he hasn't been in the final.
However, in the last couple of tournaments, Murray has looked more and more like the player he was before his injury. Though he only had four clay-court wins coming into Roland Garros, he showed signs of life in the Rome quarterfinals in mid-May by taking the first set from Nadal, 6-1. He lost the match, but it showed what he is capable of on clay when he focuses on being aggressive.
During the first week of the French Open, Murray told the press corps that the close match against Nadal had given him a lot of belief coming into this tournament:
And, yeah, the match against Rafa in Rome was a good match for me. It came at an important period for me, as well.
Hopefully that will help me at this event. You know, if I can get myself into a position where, you know, I'm playing against those sorts of players, that match will get me confidence.
It's always been confusing to me why Murray hasn't fully embraced clay before. He trained on the clay courts of Spain during his teenage years, and his defensive, grind-it-out style seems like it would fit the dirt well. It's always seemed to be an issue of footwork and belief, two things that go hand in hand in tennis.
But as he gets older and the clay matches pile up, he's getting more comfortable and consistent on the surface.
While clay is unlikely ever to be his best surface, there's no reason why Murray can't challenge accomplished clay-courters such as Nadal, Djokovic and David Ferrer on the surface if he really commits himself.
Murray faces Frenchman Gael Monfils in the quarterfinals in what is likely to be a match full of crazy French fans and even crazier shot-making. But Murray certainly has the power and consistency to rattle Monfils. If he makes it to the semifinals, he would likely get a chance to face Nadal again. Considering how well Murray played Nadal in Rome, that match would not be one to overlook.
The Brit will never be quite as in sync with the clay as he is with the grass, but he's getting more comfortable by the day. Next time you see a draw for a clay-court tournament, don't skip over Murray's name. As he's proved at this French Open so far, he's up for the challenge.