It’s not that Andy Murray can’t win on clay, but he will need to do better than concede any kind of mental advantage to Rafael Nadal. A few days ago, as reported by BBC Sport, Murray said clay was his “worst surface” and that it takes time for him to warm up to it:
It’s the most challenging surface for me and with Rafa coming back it’s going to be very tough, but I’ll give it my best shot.
What? Did Murray’s coach, Ivan Lendl, feel it was enough to give it his best shot against John McEnroe at the 1985 U.S. Open?
In contrast to Murray’s trepidation, Novak Djokovic has reiterated his desire to win the French Open. His determination is palpable and it could even drive him to heal quicker from his ankle injury. He is a great player, but also a gamer.
This is not the time for Murray, the newly-minted World No. 2, to wave caution signs at a career crossroads. Is the memory of getting thrashed by Nadal at the 2011 French Open semifinals less a motivation for redemption, but rather a manifestation of subliminal fear?
The career burden of winning one Grand Slam title is over for Andy Murray. It’s time for him to show up at Monte Carlo and flex his muscles. He will need to dine on more than hope. He must stoke the flames of inner belief into his capable and championship game. Why not clay?
Relationship on the Back Burner
Murray has had a wonderful marriage with hard courts tennis. It’s his reliable and best half, nurturing 35 title appearances and 22 titles. They are home to his talents of consistent groundstrokes, including an excellent backhand, and terrific defense. He returns serves with the efficiency of Andre Agassi, and speedily tracks down shots from opponents.
It seems logical that Murray’s skills would translate well to clay. After all, he trained on clay for much of his formative years before bursting onto the ATP.
So why in the name of Roland Garros has he never made it to a single clay-court final?
Murray does not seek a courtship with Madame Clay. Sure he shows up, takes her to lunch and goes through the motions of awkward conversation, but his heart is elsewhere. She’s a sense of obligation, like entertaining the boss’s daughter. He must be nice, but he’s not returning any phone calls.
He is faithful to his matrimony of the more lucrative hard courts. The ATP provides more of these big-points venues, so he is not willing to sacrifice his all-around talents and happier success to flirt more with moody clay.
Instead, Murray’s ultimate desire of tennis love is the beautiful green grass and revered prestige of Lady Wimbledon. She is his passion, dream and career priority, and he would dig through the deepest mines to get her a diamond ring. He admitted as much to Sky Sports, via ESPN.co.uk:
I'm preparing as best as possible for [the French Open], but when Wimbledon comes round it is obviously the big goal of all of the players during the year.
Murray, as much as any player, wants to win on clay. The difference is that he does not have the same value for winning on clay as the other surfaces.
In 2012, Nadal skipped his hard courts semifinal match versus Murray to rest his knees and prioritize for Monte Carlo clay. Murray would be more likely to make the opposite decision. In part, this is what happened last year. Although Murray completed his Miami final, he was soon banged up for most of the clay-court season as Nadal poured all his energy and ailing body into winning these titles.
Last month has shown a similar set of priorities for Murray and Nadal. While Murray was grinding away to win Miami, Rafa was resting up for Monte Carlo.
Players will almost always prioritize their strengths and best chances for titles rather than shift their allegiances to shoring up their weaknesses for longer odds at a possible win. It’s just not an optimum strategy to forego the solid relationship to play the field.
Feet of Clay
Technically speaking, Murray’s speed is not the problem. It’s his movement on clay. Clay-court specialists move gracefully into their groundstrokes by sliding before they deliver their return. Nadal and Ferrer are expert with smooth clay footwork, sprinting into the ball with their well-timed coordination.
Too often, Murray is caught sliding after he hits a groundstroke. Suddenly, he has to plant-stop much harder than Nadal, turn and scramble back into position while the opponent may seize the advantage. It’s not a natural adaptation for him, and he must fight against the muscle memory of the other 10 months of playing tennis. Coach Lendl explained this difficulty for Murray through The Telegraph:
For some players like me, it was the grass I needed to play more to get better on it. For Andy it’s the clay, because it’s not natural for him.
There are other disadvantages for Murray on clay. He doesn’t have the power to hit through the court like a Robin Soderling or Tomas Berdych. He also doesn’t hit with enough heavy-hopping topspin to trouble opponents. His opponents usually have plenty of time to set up for his deliveries.
Additionally, Murray’s speed and dexterity on faster surfaces are less advantageous on clay. He might have too much time to think and construct the point, and it requires a different level of patience to endure against backboard players.
Djokovic beat Nadal in the 2011 clay finals at Madrid and Rome. He was also up one break in the fourth set at the 2012 French Open final. Barring his ankle injury, he has the confidence he can compete with Nadal and perhaps push over the mountain that has held him back from his elusive goals.
Murray will need this kind of resolve to win titles on clay. He can not simply hope to play well without the limitations he is imposing on his mind and heart. There is no room for excuses or self-defeat if the goal is to usurp Nadal.
He has proven he can fight hard and become an Olympic gold medal winner and Grand Slam title holder. It was the most resilient effort for his career, and though the pressure might have dissipated, he can’t afford to sacrifice an ounce of ambition or concede a single degree of competitive fire.
If Murray wants to win titles on clay, he needs to come out swinging with a superior attitude. Nadal is not going to hand him a trophy for showing up and hoping to play well.