Clay courts different tale

Given that clay has been dominated by a single player for the past decade in the men’s game, it is not surprising that a top player is going into the French Open undefeated on the surface this season.

But in a casting change, third-ranked Andy Murray is the man arriving in Paris with a 10-0 record on clay this year, having won back-to-back titles in Munich and Madrid, as well as a match this week at the Italian Open.

Murray, long a top player on hard and grass courts, had never reached a final on clay before April, when he did so in Munich. While he has reached eight finals at the other Grand Slams, he lost in his two appearances in the French Open semifinals. The most recent came last year, a 6-3, 6-2, 6-1 drubbing at the hands of Rafael Nadal, a nine-time champion at Roland Garros.

Murray turned the tables on Nadal last Sunday, routing him in the Madrid final, 6-3, 6-2. It was Murray’s first victory on clay against Nadal, who has struggled even on clay this year and finds himself ranked No 7, his lowest spot in more than a decade. But Murray’s unexpectedly dense schedule, playing nine matches in 12 days, took its toll. He withdrew from the Italian Open on Thursday, citing fatigue.Still, Murray heads to Paris with belief — albeit tempered — in his chances to reach the final or even win the title.

“It’s not impossible,” Murray said. "Whereas maybe the last few years, even though I played some good tennis in Paris, I wasn’t feeling like I was healthy enough, or hadn’t played enough matches, or had enough big wins against top players to go in and believe that I could do it. But yeah, maybe this year will be different. I’ll go in there thinking there’s a chance.
“I certainly wouldn’t expect to do it. For me it would be a massive, massive turnaround. If I play well, then I know I have a chance to go far in the tournament.”

Murray attributed much of his improvement to a change in his training regimen for the clay season, and better health than he has had in recent years, when he had back problems. While his coaches, Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman, have earned praise, some have also credited this run of success to Murray’s recent marriage. A kilted Murray wed his longtime girlfriend, Kim Sears, in Scotland in early April, and he has not lost a match since, playing with his ring safely tied in his shoelaces. After beating Nadal in Madrid, Murray scribbled “Marriage works” on a television camera lens along with his customary autograph.
“You can’t just get married and not just put in the work,” he clarified this week. “You need to work extremely hard, and I did that after the wedding, for 10 days over in Barcelona. I prepared really, really well. It’s a combination of a lot of things. You know, your personal life obviously has an impact on how you perform in your job. That’s not just for athletes. I think it’s for everyone.”

Less than an hour after Murray’s withdrawal, another star departed from the tournament. Serena Williams, the top seed and the defending champion on the women’s side, withdrew before her third-round match against fellow American Christina McHale, citing a right elbow injury that has particularly hampered her serve. The injury surfaced last week in Madrid, where Williams lost for the first time this year, in the semifinals to Petra Kvitova.

Unlike Murray, who cited academic work about fatigue’s causing injuries when explaining his withdrawal, Williams drew from her own personal experience. She said she had decided to play through an injury in Rome last year and then missed five days of practice the week before the French Open, where she lost in the second round.

“If I continued to play, I think it could get worse, and then I would have a situation on my hands,” Williams said. “I think it’s smart that I learned from some things in the past. If I continue to play, it could really hurt my chances for not only Roland Garros but maybe for Wimbledon, too.”

Williams has been more cautious with injuries at this stage of her career and has withdrawn in the middle of tournaments four times since last September, double her number of losses. She said her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, was key in what she called a “mature” decision to ensure her prospects at the French Open, where she will seek her 20th Grand Slam singles title.

“He kept reiterating that we have to make the right decisions for the future and not for now,” Williams said of Mouratoglou. “I said, 'OK, but you know I hate, hate quitting.' He said, 'This isn’t quitting; this is just making a better decision.'”

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