The King of Clay, Rafael Nadal, has a new pretender to his throne. Well, make that a few pretenders. Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka, Fabio Fognini (twice) – all have defeated Rafa on the red stuff this season. But hands up who thought Andy Murray would throw his headband into the ring too? Before this month’s Munich Open, Murray had never reached a clay-court final. Worse, he had beaten just one one top-ten opponent on the surface in his career (Nikolay Davydenko, 2009). But history, shmistory. Not only did the Scot win in Munich, he went on to hoist the Madrid Masters trophy too, leaving three top-ten opponents in his wake (Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori and Rafael Nadal).
After years of mediocrity (by his standards) on his least loved surface, Murray’s Inner Clay Beast seems to have slipped its leash. The question is: why has this not happened before? After all, Murray can run, he can hit a heavy ball, and he’s Mr Consistency from the baseline – all tickets to success on the dirt. But the Scot is a counterpuncher by instinct, and clay is no great friend to the counterpuncher. You need to generate your own pace, rather than use the weight of your opponents’ shots against them. Clay being the slowest surface, with a high, unreliable bounce, it rewards consistency over creativity, physicality over finesse. Bad news for Murray, then, a tennis tactician who varies his pace, placement and spin with an artist’s attention to detail, the better to keep the ball out of opponents’ hitting zones and frustrate their rhythms. For an athlete so fleet of foot, he’s never entirely mastered the arcane art of clay-court sliding, either.
So what changed? For one thing, he shored up his sometimes-shaky serve, turning it into a genuine weapon again. Against Nadal in the Madrid final – one of the most testing arenas in tennis – he served intelligently, his forehand was unflappable under pressure and his crosscourt backhand was an über force that sent the Spaniard deep into his forehand wing. While his opponent struggled desperately for timing, Murray made squeaky-clean contact, his shots at once aggressive and impeccably controlled.
And something seems to have grooved with Murray mentally. Where before he was a scowl with a racquet, glowering at his team, clutching a body part and screaming at unhearing gods when things didn’t go his way, these days he’s positivity personified. Trimly bearded, he plays with a quiet, head-down purpose, no longer holding his game to an impossibly high standard. At the moment of his Madrid triumph, a genuine smile wrinkled his cheeks. Perhaps he should get married more often. Murray’s win-loss record since tying the knot with Kim Sears in April? 10-0.