On its surface, Andy Murray's loss to Rafael Nadal looks like Richie Tenenbaum coughing up the U.S. Nationals. We most certainly know Great Britain had a lot riding on Andy Murray financially and personally.
However, even though Murray's descending score line (3-6, 2-6, 1-6) looks like an exercise in getting to the pub faster, is it fair to suggest that maybe there were other elements in play?
Here’s a question prior to the match:
And this was the answer: "Yes, yes, 1,000 times yes."
Murray plays on clay out of a sense of obligation. After all, there are only so many French Opens a professional tennis player has in his lifetime.
Murray, for all his accolades—his two Grand Slams, gold medal, 28 singles titles—has never won on clay. He’s never even reached a final on clay.
It wouldn't be fair to criticize Murray's loss even if he were 100 percent. Sure, maybe Murray could have put up a better fight, but running into the greatest clay-court player in generations is all the excuse Murray will ever need.
Running into Nadal in the French Open is like the Rebel Alliance coming out of hyperspace only to find out there’s a trap. Murray sounds an awful lot like Admiral Ackbar. Unlike Ackbar, though, Murray may have a very valid excuse as to why his performance lacked his Wimbledon-ian ease.
Back surgery in September of last year quashed expectations of a stellar effort at Roland Garros.
That may have been an excuse for an early exit from the tournament, but no player with a bad back reaches the semifinal of a Grand Slam—especially one that requires so much extra torque and instability that a clay court presents.
Nadal told the Press Association (h/t The Guardian) the right thing about Murray, calling him a threat, even if he didn’t actually mean it. "I’m not surprised Andy is in the semi-finals. He’s a candidate to win Roland Garros. Before the tournament he was a candidate to win Roland Garros for me," he said.
Nadal may not have been surprised, but it was a shocker that Murray reached this point in the tournament anyway—bad back or not.
[Monfils] played a bad fifth set. That’s why he lost the match. He made a lot of unforced errors, which he wasn’t making in the previous sets. I didn’t have to run at all in the fifth set once I got ahead. The way that he played the last three or four games, for me it was unexpected, because his level in the third and fourth sets was extremely high. He made very few mistakes. But that’s the thing about five-set matches, you need to do it for longer than two sets.
Then along came Nadal. Nadal is just too good, historically good, on clay. Ten, 20, 30 years from now, people may look back and find Nadal to be the greatest to ever play on clay.
So, will that justify Murray’s no-show? One, it won’t be remembered at all. Two, it would only be remembered had Nadal lost. Nadal did what he was supposed to do. Murray, in a same albeit disappointing way, also did what he was supposed to do.
Murray’s career on clay has been benign. He’s 58-36 on clay for a win percentage of .617. Compare that to Nadal, whose record is 311-24 for a .928 win percentage and 44 titles (!). This match wasn’t even fair. Apparently Murray was getting desperate. Who wouldn’t?
Murray is a world-class hard-court and grass player. Reaching the French Open semifinals should give him the confidence that his best days on clay are before him—especially once his back is 100 percent. Murray needs to win on clay to put himself in the elite class of players.
Though Roger Federer didn’t beat Nadal to win his French Open title, Federer’s epic career would have felt one iota cheapened by failing at the French.
Novak Djokovic is in a similar boat, knocking on the French Open door without admittance. Unlike Federer, he could end his French Open demons with a win over Nadal.
But back to Murray.
Barry Glendenning of The Guardian wrote a fitting coda to the ride Murray took his fans on during the French Open:
For a man who is supposedly out of form, hardly renowned for his clay-court savvy and still not fully recovered from the back surgery he underwent eight months ago, Andy Murray has not so much confounded as smithereened the pre-tournament expectations of others by making it to this afternoon's French Open men's singles semi-final against Rafael Nadal on Court Philippe Chatrier.
Even though Murray shouldn't be judged on the merits of this single match, he does need to step up on dirt. He doesn’t need to win the French to be world class, but he needs to prove he can win titles on clay.
Otherwise, he’ll always be known as a two-surface wonder in a three-surface world.
Like Meatloaf sings, "Two out of three ain't bad."