x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Nadal rolls over battling Murray into French final

Despite the pain, Murray played his heart out, battling for every point, but still lost in straight sets. Few had given him any chance of dethroning the King of Clay anyway.

Standing on Court Philippe Chatrier yesterday, Andy Murray must have felt a bit like Horatio Nelson on the deck of HMS Victory after his struggles of the past two weeks.

During his first practice session in Paris, the Scotsman hurt his groin. Murray then twisted his right ankle during the third round, tearing a tendon. In the fourth round, he showed great determination to prevail over Viktor Troicki in a five-setter, but then broke a tooth while chewing on a baguette. A sore throat and a visit to the dentist followed the quarter-final win over Juan Ignacio Chela.

"It's weird, because it has never happened to me before, but it's been a good test which I've passed well up to now," Murray said. "It's just been one thing after another, but I've managed to get through it."

On a prescription of 20 tablets a day, Murray's biggest battle, however, still lay ahead; the one against a one-man Spanish Armada, the ultimate clay-court conqueror and virtual owner of Roland Garros.

Rafael Nadal had lost just once in six years at the French Open, to Robin Soderling in 2009, and he had humbled the same man in the previous round, committing only 13 unforced errors.

Celebrating his 25th birthday yesterday, Nadal had never lost to Murray on clay and held a 10-4 career advantage. The Spaniard, self-admittedly, was low on confidence after those shattering losses to Novak Djokovic in the finals of Madrid and Rome, yet he had not dropped a set since the first-round win over John Isner.

Hoping to become the first British man to reach the French Open final since Bunny Austin in 1937, this was Murray's Trafalgar then. He was standing on a burning deck, but determined to turn back the tide. There were no signs of trepidation, though you could see the grimaces every time he landed awkwardly on his right feet.

Despite the pain, Murray played his heart out, battling for every point, but still lost in straight sets. Few had given him any chance of dethroning the King of Clay anyway.

"I think Andy Murray can beat Rafael Nadal," Miles Maclagan, Murray's former coach, told BBC. "But do I think he will? No, I would not bet my money against Nadal on clay."

"He is playing a guy who even if you play the match of your life, you might not beat him," said Brad Gilbert, another former coach.

Murray himself knew the enormity of the task and said: "I understand that Rafa could probably get away without playing his best match on clay against me and I understand that I'm going to have to play my best to give myself a good chance."

He did bring his best game to the court, the best of the fortnight, but it was not enough. Murray could have done better with the 17 break-points he got.

Still, the 24 year old can walk away with his head held high.

In his first four years on the tour, he had never won more than two matches in a row on clay. This year, he became the first Briton to reach the last four at the French Open since 2004.

Murray also came very close to ending Djokovic's winning streak in the semi-finals at Rome. It is impressive progress on clay, especially given an oddity that he suffers from - the world No 4 was born with a bipartite patella (split kneecap), which has been causing him pain since the age of 16. The condition gets worse on clay with the movement and sliding.

Pain, then, has been a constant companion for Murray and he has conquered it every time - the physical pain and also the mental trauma of his parents' split early on.

He was also a witness to the horrors of the 1996 Dunblane school massacre, hiding under the headmaster's desk as Thomas Hamilton gunned down 16 students and a teacher.

"I could have been one of those children," Murray wrote in his autobiography, Hitting Back.

Destiny, however, willed otherwise.

It was not to be his day yesterday, though, and many are wondering if he has the mental toughness on court to ever enjoy his moment in the sun.

 

arizvi@thenational.ae