Eight matches in 11 days on a previously unfavoured surface, a three-set duel that finished so late it prompted promises of an official review of scheduling on the ATP tour, and, to top it all, a virtually flawless performance against the best clay-court player in history.
Not a conventional recipe for success, perhaps, but then Andy Murray, who defeated Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-2 in the final of the Madrid Masters to claim his second clay-court title in as many weeks, has never been one to go by the book.
Although he turned his back on the British system at the age of 15 in order to hone his talents on the clay courts of Barcelona’s Sánchez-Casal academy, the Scot has rarely looked entirely at ease on the red stuff. The Munich Open, the final of which was held over until last Monday due to rain, was his first title on clay, and with nine-time French Open champion Nadal in ominously good form over the past week, and a testing fortnight behind him, few were expecting Murray to upset the form book.
But upset it he did, playing with an authority and conviction that belied his recent exertions, and which few players other than Novak Djokovic have been able to summon against the great Spaniard on clay. Rarely has there been a better advert for burning the midnight oil. Nadal simply had no answer to Murray’s variety and consistency, cutting an increasingly forlorn figure as he was repeatedly subjected to the rare indignity of being outrallied and out-thought from the back of the court.
The defending champion’s failure to find rhythm and fluency on his legendary forehand, the cornerstone of his game, was as much down to Murray’s guile as his own shortcomings – plentiful though these were – and it was a striking feature of the match that most of Nadal’s best moments came when he advanced into the forecourt. Fine volleyer though he is, Nadal has not made his name at the net, and Murray – who had lost all six of his previous clay-court meetings with the Spaniard – seemed to sense from the outset that his opponent was vulnerable.
“I couldn’t have done much more,” said Murray afterwards, with no little understatement. “It’s one of the toughest things in tennis to try to beat Rafa on clay. It’s extremely tough and this is the reason why we play tennis – for these matches.”
Looking ahead to the French Open, which starts in a fortnight, and where he was decimated by Nadal in last year’s semi-finals, the Scot expressed quiet optimism. “I’ve played well at Roland Garros in the past, but my game wasn’t ready to win there. I’ve played Rafa a few times on clay, and this obviously gives me confidence. I don’t go in as one of the favourites, but if I play like this I’ll give myself an opportunity and that is all you can ask.”
For Nadal, who was bidding for a third successive title in Madrid and fifth overall, the ramifications of defeat hardly bear thinking about. The man known as the undisputed king of clay will now drop out of the top five, and could be as low as nine should he falter at the Rome Masters next week. Since the French Open seeds players strictly according to ranking, Nadal could face Djokovic, Murray or Federer as early as the quarter-finals. On current form, he would not relish that prospect, although the same applies in reverse.
For Murray, there are no such worries. “Marriage works,” wrote the gleeful Scot on the courtside camera moments after Nadal had sent yet another woeful forehand into the bottom of the net on match point. It would certainly seem so; on this evidence, Murray, who recently married his long-time girlfriend Kim Sears, will have the locker room’s singletons racing for the aisle.
This article was written by Les Roopanarine, for theguardian.com on Sunday 10th May 2015 20.58 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010