Andy Murray to give Djokovic a run for his money at French Open

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This spring has seen Andy Murray marry Kim Sears and gain a new assistant coach in Jonas Bjorkman. And he will step on to la terre battue, or the beaten earth, of Roland Garros still undefeated as a married man and since Bjorkman arrived on the scene.

"Marriage works," Murray wrote on a TV lens in Madrid to celebrate beating Rafa Nadal for the title. And Bjorkman's relationship with Murray also appears to be humming along nicely, too, having started with a title in Munich; indeed, there could not have been a sweeter start to their partnership.

Such has been the quality of Murray's tennis on Europe's terracotta courts this season - never before had he won a title on clay, and never before had he defeated Nadal on the surface - that questions have been raised about how he has changed his game. Optimists, meanwhile, have wondered whether he is about to become the first British man for 80 years -- yes, since Fred Perry -- to take the title in Paris.

Darren Cahill, an ESPN analyst who has previously provided part-time guidance and advice to Murray, reminds Bjorkman fans that a good share of the credit for the Scot's clay-court form should go to Amelie Mauresmo, his coach of almost a year (they linked up during last summer's grass-court season).

"I'm sure the addition of Jonas is going to be a great one for Andy but to be fair I would suggest that what we've seen from him in recent weeks is more an accumulation of the work done with Amelie over the last 12 months," says Cahill, regarded as one of the smartest tennis brains. "We've seen small changes in Andy's game -- serve and court positioning -- of late and he's continued that on the clay. Amelie deserves a lot of credit here and the fact that Jonas has come on board will give Andy the confidence and security to push hard in the majors over the next three months."

So this will be the first French Open of the Mauresmo era, and the first when many are talking about Murray as a real contender for La Coupe des Mousquetaires, but perhaps his clay-court transformation has been a little overstated. He has improved, and he has been playing the best clay-court tennis of his career, but it's not as if he was ever a no-hoper on an orange-red court; he has twice made the semi-finals at Roland Garros, and on both occasions it was Nadal who ended his run. This year, though, he will be encouraged by having defeated Nadal in Spain.

"Andy has been a genuine contender in Paris before with a couple of runs to the semi-finals. He's capable," says Cahill. "He's suffered the same problem that everyone has, except Robin [Soderling, who defeated Nadal in the fourth round of the 2009 tournament, his only defeat so far at the tournament], and that's finding a way to bring down the Spaniard. "There's no disgrace in losing to Rafa in Paris but Andy's win in Madrid will have him quietly confident of doing well again this year. To me, he's placed with a group of guys behind Rafa and Novak who can win the title."

One reason for Murray's form, Cahill says, was that he has been in good physical shape and free of any great back pain. During past clay-court swings, Murray's back has been aggravated by the movement on the surface, which is so different from grass or hard courts. Not this time, thanks to the operation that Murray had 18 months ago. "Clay-court tennis has always placed a lot of strain on his back and that issue was corrected with surgery 18 months ago. He looks stronger than ever and he's been moving well all year, building confidence week by week," Cahill says of Murray, who withdrew mid-tournament from Rome's Foro Italico, after one appearance, because of fatigue.

That appears to have been a sensible decision, resting his body ahead of Paris. "[Being in strong physical shape] is a major factor in Andy's game," says the Australian. "He's always been one of the hardest working players off the court and it's impossible to compete against Rafa, Roger and Novak unless you are willing to physically suffer on court in five-set matches.

"They have, with Andy, taken the game to a new level and the pack is learning from their professionalism to stay in touch. Andy will want to show that he's improved from the Australian Open final where he physically and mentally hit a wall against Novak and he has shown many signs over the clay-court season that he can handle the workload."

"Beating Nadal over five sets on clay might just be the most difficult challenge in any sport." Darren Cahill

So, what of Murray's competition? Nadal has won a record nine titles at the French Open -- no man has ever been more successful at any one of the Grand Slams -- and yet his confidence and form have been alarmingly low on the clay this year. To the extent that he described his forehand, the single most important shot in winning all those titles in Paris, as "vulgar". Remarkably, he hasn't won a tournament during this European clay-court season. The closest he came was Madrid, where he was heavily beaten by Murray. Can he win a tenth title in Paris?

By contrast to Nadal, Djokovic is -- just like Murray -- still unbeaten on the surface this season, after winning titles in Monte Carlo and Rome. About the only time that he has looked in jeopardy was during the prize-giving ceremony in Rome when he opened a Champagne bottle and the cork hit him on the nose; had it struck him in the eye, his French Open could have been at risk. As it was, he survived the uncorking, and now appears to have the best chance of his career to win the French Open for the first time, which would make him only the eighth man in history to achieve the Career Grand Slam. Apart from Nadal, the only other former champion in the draw is Roger Federer, who had a decent run in Rome where he was the runner-up to Djokovic.

Cahill is of the opinion that the longer format in Paris, with matches played over five sets, could be of huge benefit to Nadal. "I believe beating Nadal over five sets on clay might just be the most difficult challenge in any sport. His domination in Paris is remarkable and I'll doubt we will see anything like it again, at least in my lifetime. Novak has threatened the last few years but just came up short against Rafa. He's perfectly placed to break through after a stellar year and has been the run-away No.1 in the men's game, but you don't get any practice throughout the course of the year to play Rafa over five sets on clay. It's a whole different sport," said Cahill.

"A finals appearance in Rome will do wonders for Roger's confidence and belief but a bit will depend on his draw. He's always capable of going deep but might need a little help dodging a couple of landmines in his draw if he's going to go all the way."