Andy Murray has to beat Stanislas Wawrinka here on Thursday to remain at No2 in the world and, given the help that would deliver in clearing a path into the late stages of the upcoming slams, starting in Paris towards the end of May, he will not lack for motivation.
On the evidence of his first clay-court match of the season, an efficient rather than blistering win over the Frenchman Edouard Roger-Vasselin in 72 minutes in the second round of the Monte Carlo Masters on Wednesday, Murray is in good shape to prevail over the Swiss, who has won both their matches on clay. Even if he does win, Murray will remain wary of the one player he and everyone else fear most on this surface and in this event: Rafael Nadal.
The Spaniard's 43rd consecutive win on this court also came in straight sets, 10 minutes quicker than Murray, although he was broken at the start of the second before crushing the challenge of Marinko Matosevic, for the cost of just three games. The world No4 was mildly amused by the cheek of the precocious young Australian, who tipped over one of his meticulously lined-up water bottles with his racket in the final changeover of the match, the tennis equivalent of stealing gold from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. "Was not a pressure moment," Nadal said, "but a funny one." Indeed. Just as well Matosevic left it until it did not matter.
"I played well at the beginning with the right intensity, no mistakes," Nadal said, "trying to find a good feeling on the ball, to find the right rhythm." The prospect of reaching for his ninth trophy on the spin in Monte Carlo does not bother him, either, especially after spending seven months out last year repairing his knees. "Every day is a present for me," he said.
The next opponent who may like to try his luck in winding up Nadal, meanwhile, is Philipp Kohlschreiber, who embarrassed Murray here two years ago.
However, if Nadal is to be denied at the tournament he owns, Murray will most likely be the player to stop him, in the semi-finals on Saturday, because Novak Djokovic, on the other side of the draw, admitted he was some way short of his best in recovering from 1-5 down in the first set to beat Mikhail Youzhny 4-6, 6-1, 6-4. His bruised ankle held up, but his confidence ebbed, and he was not pleased to be penalised for time-wasting.
Murray is refreshed and injury-free after his exertions in his sweat-box tournament win over David Ferrer in Miami, and hit the ball pleasingly from all parts, served well and was only occasionally inconvenienced in beating Roger-Vasselin 6-1, 6-4.
He seems more relaxed than at the start of his past two clay adventures, when he had to cope with an elbow injury in 2011 and a muscle-freezing back complaint last year. This time, he says, all the parts are clicking and he was relaxed enough later to joke about the prospect of playing his coach, Ivan Lendl, in a charity doubles match at Queen's in the summer.
"It's for charity," he said, "so I would hope we have fun. I hope it's not too competitive." But would Lendl, famously aggressive as a player, try to nail him if he had the chance? "I'm sure there'll be some of that going on," he said of Old Stoneface, who remained inscrutable as ever throughout Wednesday's second-round match. He would have been satisfied, rather than ecstatic.
Roger-Vasselin said of Murray's clay prospects: "I believe he's not bad on this surface, even if it's not his favourite. He moves very well on clay. I asked several players for advice, and not a single one was able to help me. They all said: 'Don't make mistakes and play well' – as if I didn't know that. It's difficult to find a solution to his game. I couldn't find the balance between being aggressive and not making mistakes. But I didn't give up. I kept fighting. Otherwise the match would have been finished very quickly."
Murray did not get carried away with his performance. "Over the next few weeks, the more time I get to spend on the court practising and playing matches, that combined will help me play better. But the first match, you're just trying to win. You try to play solid. You don't take too many risks. It was good."
Nadal, in his first game back on European soil since losing to Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon on collapsing knees nearly nine months ago, was at first awesome, relieved then his old, snorting self. He did not seem to favour the tender left knee that has plagued him much of his career, either, hitting a fierce rhythm in the closing moments.
When Nadal passed Matosevic to wrap it up in just over an hour, the Australian for one glorious moment looked as if he were going to drill his spare ball straight back at the great man. He belted it high into the crowd, instead. You can tempt fate only so much.
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