With all the pressure on Novak Djokovic’s ambition to win the 2016 French Open, Andy Murray’s Rome title has quietly placed him in position to contend for the greatest title on clay. It’s a new possibility for the Scot who used to slide away from clay-court draws.
While few observers will list Murray with Djokovic or nine-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal, he has been closing in with better results since April 2015. He started by winning Stuttgart and Madrid, pushing Djokovic to five sets in the French Open semifinals and clinching Great Britain’s Davis Cup championship on red clay in Belgium. He’s coming off his biggest clay-court title yet—a convincing 6-3, 6-3 final over Djokovic.
Murray is 29-3 on clay in that stretch, losing only to Djokovic (French Open 2015), Nadal (Monte Carlo 2016) and Djokovic (Madrid 2016). He has also defeated each of those players since.
Is Murray ready for an epic run at Roland Garros?
Awaiting the Draw
It was important for Murray to win Rome and solidify his status as the No. 2 player in the world. He will be at the bottom of the French Open bracket, as far as possible from tournament favorite Djokovic. Now he could use a little more luck of the draw.
Ideally, Murray hopes Nadal will land in the top of the draw, either the quarterfinals or semifinals and set up to war five gruelling sets with Djokovic. The last thing Murray needs is the return of vintage Nadal in all his fiery glory. Even surviving that could be a Pyrrhic victory and leave him burnt to a crisp for the likely and daunting task of beating his Serbian rival who will be eager to avenge Rome and finally conquer Paris.
Murray’s consistency and experience should give him the strong advantage over good players who do not have a power advantage. David Goffin, Kei Nishikori, David Ferrer and Richard Gasquet are also well-rounded but lack the weapons to trouble the Scot.
Instead, he would be better off with some of the power brokers landing in Djokovic’s half. These include fading Stan Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem, Nick Kyrgios, Milos Raonic and French native Jo-Wilfried Tsonga who rode crowd support to a second career French Open semifinal last year.
We will know soon if Lady Luck is smiling on the Scot.
Consider how big the Rome title was for Murray, legitimized by defeating Djokovic. While Nadal fans must still wonder if their hero can summon up enough belief in the critical moments, to say nothing about executing a nearly perfect match for three of five sets, Murray has washed away some of the dust the dominant Djokovic had kicked in his eyes.
There’s no question he knows he can win big titles, and the Telegraph was quick to point this out in its immediate post-match report:
The Rome Masters may not be one the flagship tournaments of the tennis year and Novak Djokovic was far from his best, but the psychological effect this could have could be massive.
Murray has finally beaten Djokovic and to do it on clay must be doubly satisfying ahead of the French Open at Roland Garros.
He was dominant for long periods, winning many of the long rallies. Even when the tide seemed to be inevitably turning back in Djokovic's favour, Murray showed great resilience.
Of course Murray knows he may have awakened the king. Djokovic is a proud warrior—the most dominant player of the past half-decade and one of the greatest players of all time. He will be locked into every match at Roland Garros and will not take Murray lightly, not for a single point.
Djokovic might feel wounded when pundits seem to turn toward other players or question his resume. Former superstar and seven-time major winner Mats Wilander said in Eurosport: “Djokovic comes in with pressure because he needs to win the French Open to become one of the greatest of all time.”
Is Wilander actually implying Djokovic is not yet one of the greatest of all time?
It might mean nothing for Murray who must end a nearly three-year drought since his second major win. He knows he has his work cut out for him. “The Slams are extremely tough to win,” Murray said in BBC Sport. “You've got to perform over two weeks, over five sets. Physically and mentally it's more demanding than these weeks.”
Murray’s improvements on clay begin with shoring up his second serve. The Scot has not been hurt as much on clay, and he’s learned to slide into his shots better, grind more and move in to the baseline more often when there are opportunities to pressure great opponents like Nadal and Djokovic.
Craig O’Shannessy for ATP World’s Brain Game calculated Murray hit with greater pace and extracted more short balls from Djokovic. It was a successful venture for Murray who has often been reticent to change his more defensive style employed successfully against almost anyone else on the planet.
Against Djokovic, Murray gained an important confirmation of creating and capitalizing on the right opportunities. He has at least a semblance of a blueprint to defeat Djokovic, even while knowing the execution is easier said than done. After all, the world No. 1 is not going to sit back next time and trade strokes if he is losing.
Murray will need to keep evolving with his blend of offensive defense and keep mixing in the right winning formula. That means more corner pressure from both sides of his strokes, more up-the-line backhands to the Djokovic forehand and flatter pace when the court opens up. Now and then, he can boldly attack the net...dump in a drop shot. He understands he will need to win with more risk.
Simple enough? Hardly. First, Murray has six of the world's best players lined up in the bottom of the draw. If Murray is not clicking, he will not get to the final. But if he does, the Scot will stand as the last line of defense in keeping Djokovic away from the Musketeers' Cup.