For the past three months, any conversation about men's tennis has centered on the dominant top three of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. World No. 4 Andy Murray has never had much success on clay, and after his disastrous North American hard-court swing in March, he seemed to be a mere afterthought in Europe.
The Brit didn't win any titles, but he posed a threat almost every week. In reaching the final four at Roland Garros (admittedly, against a weak draw), Murray made it to his third clay-court semifinal of the season. Except for a loss against Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci in Madrid, each of his defeats came at the hands of either Nadal or Djokovic, and the Brit was the only man other than Federer to take a set off of both on clay.
Familiarity breeds victory
A paradox in Murray's career record is that his persistent, defensive game is seemingly built for clay, while he has played at an elite level only on faster, more predictable surfaces. Fourteen of his 16 career titles have come on hard courts (along with one each on grass and carpet), and eight of the 16 have been indoors. These are numbers that sound more appropriate for Andy Roddick than Andy Murray.
His track record on North American hard courts made his 2011 spring season all the more disappointing. Between the Australian Open final and Monte Carlo in April, Murray played three matches and lost them all. A first-round exit to Marcos Baghdatis in Rotterdam might be written off as a blip in an otherwise fine season, but the same can't be said of his performances at Indian Wells and Miami, where he lost to Donald Young and Alex Bogomolov Jr., both qualifiers at that time ranked outside of the top 100.
The most common criticism of Murray for much of his career has been that he is too passive, ignoring opportunities to attack and standing far behind the baseline. The numbers confirm just how extreme a counterpuncher Murray has become. Over six matches in Paris, Murray's average point ran to 5.1 strokes, fourth highest in the tournament. By comparison, Nadal's average point lasted 4.6 shots, while Djokovic and Federer averaged 4.1 and 3.9, respectively. It seems that the only thing standing between the Brit and further clay-court success is comfort, and at five shots per point, he has plenty of time to get comfortable.
Coming into this season, Murray's ATP match record on clay was a mere 26-22, reflecting too many first-round exits to the likes of Juan Monaco and Philipp Kohlschreiber. This year, he won 12 of 16 matches, came close to upsetting the world's top two players and picked up more than one thousand ranking points along the way. That 12-4 record is an enormous improvement from last year's 6-4, when all four losses came at the hands of players outside the top 10.
Murray has had only one other clay-court season that could be seen as a positive, and that was in 2009. In Monte Carlo that year, he played his first clay semifinal. A month later, he reached the quarterfinals of Roland Garros, where he fell to Fernando Gonzalez. It was a big step forward for a young man who had just turned 22, and it presaged bigger things.
It didn't take long to see what else he could do. Murray went to Queen's Club and won his first grass-court title, then gave Roddick a tough fight in the Wimbledon semifinals. His next stop was Montreal, where he won the Masters 1000-level tournament by defeating an in-form Juan Martin del Potro. The clay-court victories didn't exactly cause the hard-court victories -- after all, Murray won in Miami that year just before the clay season began, while this year, he crashed out of that event in his first match. But when Murray wins matches on a surface that doesn't come naturally to him, he is that much more of a threat in conditions that he likes.
Let's not forget, Murray registered his last three victories after partially tearing a ligament in his ankle. The injury, suffered in Paris during his third-round match against Michael Berrer, is severe enough that he may yet withdraw from Queen's Club, and even with that disadvantage, he pushed Nadal hard in Friday's match, winning 46 percent of points in that contest. The injury may have tweaked his game for the better, as it forced him to become more aggressive. Even after the end of the Berrer match, in which Murray was barely able to move, he kept up the more aggressive style. In the quarters against Juan Ignacio Chela -- an excellent defensive player in his own right -- he hit winners on 25 percent of points, compared to only 15 percent in his second-rounder against Simone Bolelli.
In this, we have an even bigger paradox. The passive, counterpunching Murray falls flat on hard courts, then rediscovers the value of aggression while playing on a slower surface. His triumphs two years ago came from a healthy mix of the two styles, as he used his stellar defense to set up big shots, rather than defending for its own sake. Murray is learning the same lesson again, at exactly the right time. As soon as his ankle lets him get back on the match court, he'll be on one of his favorite surfaces, at home, with the confidence gained from the best clay-court season of his career. Taken together, these factors make him a bigger threat than ever this summer to win his first Grand Slam title.
Jeff Sackmann covers college baseball for ESPN Insider. With Kent Bonham, he co-founded College Splits, which provides amateur baseball data and analysis for MLB teams. You can follow him on Twitter here.