Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray's Mental Toughness Sets Up Epic French Open Clash

Art SpanderFeatured ColumnistJune 4, 2014

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 04:  Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates victory in his men's singles quarter-final match against David Ferrer of Spain on day eleven of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 4, 2014 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Vince Lombardi used to say hurt is in the mind. So, too, is success. Also failure, not that we should call anyone who makes it as far as the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam tennis tournament a failure.

There are so many pieces of advice on how one becomes a champion. Maybe the most accurate it this: You’ve got to believe.

Winners always do.

Even when, as Rafael Nadal did, they drop the first set of the French Open quarters on Tuesday to fellow Spaniard David Ferrer.

Even when, as Andy Murray, they are fighting the clock and themselves in the third and fourth set against Gael Monfils in another quarters match.

Somehow he knows he will find a way to win. Somehow his opponent knows it too.

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 04:  Rafael Nadal of Spain shakes hands with David Ferrer of Spain at the net after their men's singles quarter-final match on day eleven of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 4, 2014 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Ge
Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Winners think like winners. Very little affects them. A long delay because of rain? A stumble at the start? A bad call? A wobble in the middle? They go forward, relying on the mental toughness that makes a champion a champion.

Conversely, non-winners—we call no one “losers”—perceive the opposite.

“We would take a lead into the ninth inning,” the late Ron Santo said often of his bad Chicago Cubs teams from the 1960s and ‘70s, “and we’d wonder which way we were going to lose it.”

Nadal lost to Ferrer on clay less than a month ago, but it was the surface at Monte Carlo, not the special red clay of Roland Garros, in Paris’ Bois de Boulogne. That is where Nadal had taken the only three previous matches he played against Ferrer and where, against everyone, he had won 32 in a row and 63 of 64.

Was anyone surprised Nadal won this one, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0, 6-1?

“I lost my concentration,” Ferrer said immediately after the match in a media session. “My focus.”

Nadal never loses his focus. Not in the big tournaments. His back may be sore. His preliminary tournaments in the spring may have been less than impressive.

But this is the French Open, or as the French themselves call it, Roland Garros, their imprimatur on their own event.

This is where Nadal plays to his own higher standard.

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 04:  Andy Murray of Great Britain returns a shot during his men's singles quarter-final match against Gael Monfils of France on day eleven of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 4, 2014 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Matthew Stockm
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Murray is seeded only seventh this year, unable to enter tournaments for 15 weeks after September back surgery, and thus not acquiring points necessary to keep him high in the rankings.

But he won Wimbledon last summer, the first Brit to do so in 77 years, matching the hopes and demands of a desperate nation where tennis was created. Nothing in the sport could ever be as difficult.

Tuesday was a mess in Paris. Rain delayed play for three hours. The women went first, Simona Halep and Andrea Petkovic, advancing. The men didn't even begin until early evening.

Murray in a hurry, the first two sets against Monfils, snap, snap. Then the temperature grew cold. Then Monfils became competent. Then the day got gloomy.

When the match went into a fourth set, it was so dark a fifth set didn’t seem possible. But it happened, and Murray, showing his character as well as the needed shots, won, 6-4, 6-1, 4-6, 1-6, 6-0.

A man loses a set 1-6, and he seemingly is done. Then calling on his resources, most of all the mental strength, which helped him win Wimbledon, the 2012 U.S. Open and Olympic gold, Murray survives. In truth, prevails.

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 04:  Andy Murray of Great Britain shakes hands with Gael Monfils of France after their men's singles quarter-final match on day eleven of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 4, 2014 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/G
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Monfils? The one they call Le Monf? He had the crowd chanting for him. The home country kid. Vive le France. Vive le Monf.

Losing consecutive sets then winning the next two? The stadium in an uproar? Murray barely blinked. Been there, in effect, done that. Sorry, and be careful on your way to the Metro, fans.

“Everything happened so fast,” Monfils said in the post-match media interview. “I missed a few shots, and I don’t know what happened.”

We know. The guy on the other side of the net wasn’t going to lose. He’s spent years developing physically and mentally. He understands what is needed.

He also understands his next match is against Nadal in the semis. Champion against champion, winner against winner, mental toughness against mental toughness. The road gets rougher.

Nadal isn’t going to fold like Ferrer. Murray won't collapse like Monfils.

“I make a lot of mistakes with my backhand,” said Nadal, reviewing the Ferrer match. “Amazing how much mistakes I had with my backhand.”

Mistakes that nettled him. Mistakes that from afar could be ignored.

“I went on court relaxed,” said Nadal, and why not when playing in a location so advantageous. “Not relaxed thinking I was going to win, but relaxed thinking I was going to play well.”

Winning 18 of the 23 games in the last three sets would meet everyone’s definition of playing well.

Now it’s Nadal, mentally tough, against Murray, mentally tough, in one of the Friday semifinals. You figure it will be Rafa, but...we can hardly wait.


Art Spander, an award-winning columnist, has covered more than 50 grand slams in his career. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.