Sometimes it seems that there’s a clay-court titan inside Andy Murray‘s long and lean frame dying to get out.
Murray, seeded No. 2 and defending champion in Madrid, demonstrated his on-again, off-again prowess on clay again in Madrid on Thursday. He cold-cocked No. 8 seed Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals 6-3, 6-2. It sets up a semifinal clash with No. 5 seed Rafael Nadal.
Berdych never saw a break point. Murray won 92 percent of his first-serve points. The match, which lasted just 76 minutes, was played with the roof of the Caja Magica closed because of rain. Perhaps that reminded Murray of his native Scotland — precipitation as inspiration.
“They were different conditions, and I’ve adjusted to them well,” Murray told the media afterward. “That was the most pleasant thing for me, because I’ve only played maybe three or four indoor clay matches in my life.”
This sudden change in Murray’s game is noteworthy, given his struggles earlier this year. It’s like someone turned the lights on. Or a television show suddenly went from black and white to color.
Murray has always downplayed his clay-court ambitions. He’s been a hard-court aficionado, despite having spent his formative years training in Spain (where, incidentally, they also do a lot of work on hard courts). The major Murray most wanted to win before he had a shot at any of them was the US Open.
Murray has won that event now, as well as Wimbledon. He’s also won 10 ATP Masters titles on hard courts and just one on clay. That’s some pretty irrefutable evidence of where his talents lie.
But consider: Murray has been to the French Open semifinals three times in the past four years, losing twice to Nadal in his halcyon King of Clay days and to Novak Djokovic last year. Murray isn’t some Scottish highlander, adrift on a sea of red dirt.
Murray became a proud father on Feb. 7. It was shortly after he reached the final of the Australian Open (on hard courts) for the fifth time in his career. In his return to the tour, Murray won just one match at each of the two hard-court ATP Masters 1000 events in the U.S., Indian Wells and Miami.
New-dad fears trumped new-dad joys and ricocheted around the Murray camp and fan base. The clay segment was looming. Clay demands patience. Murray is a little antsy at the best of times. A lot antsy when things get complicated. A baby makes things complicated. Things looked uncertain at best.
Murray had a surprisingly good tournament in Monte Carlo in his first outing on clay. He caught an enormous break in the third round when Benoit Paire self-destructed, paving the way for a three-set Murray win. The Scot looked devastating when he crushed Milos Raonic in the quarterfinals, 6-2, 6-0. In the semis, he broke Nadal twice in the first set to win it, 6-2.
Then things got complicated.
Murray didn’t like some of the calls. Nadal wiped the sweat off his brow with a finger and flicked it away. Murray complained to his box. Nadal jawboned with the umpire. Murray shuffled around, discontented. Nadal won the second set. Murray scowled and gesticulated. Nadal kept grinding. Murray cursed. Nadal punched the air and yelled “Vamos!”
Reporters used words like “wilted” when they described the way Murray faded and lost.
Murray helped launch Nadal’s bid to reclaim his “King of Clay” status. On Saturday, the Scot will get the opportunity to bring that campaign to a halt in a rematch of last year’s final. The relatively fast clay surely will help Murray’s cause.
“[Nadal] is definitely playing better [than last year], for sure, but I also think that I’m playing better,” Murray said. “You have to keep improving. There are things in my game that are much better. I need to learn from the match that I played against him and hopefully have a good performance tomorrow.”
If Murray wants to come out and shout his expertise on clay for all the world to hear and see, this would be a good time to do it.