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Lone star Murray finds feet on clay

By Leigh Walsh   on   Friday 20 May 2016
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With his clay-court game going from strength to strength, No.2 seed Andy Murray is quietly confident heading into Roland-Garros.

As Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal traded groundstrokes like insults during a gruelling two-hour practice session on Suzanne-Lenglen Court, their respective Roland-Garros journeys were mapped out in a room beneath the historic stadium.

For Murray, the No.2 seed, the draw was somewhat kinder. A mini-section of wild cards and qualifiers appeared to offer some bedding-in time. That was until the qualifier drawn to meet him in the opening round was wily veteran Radek Stepanek, who pushed the Briton to three sets in Madrid a matter of weeks ago.

Murray, however, is still the heavy favourite in a match-up that is made for wonderful shot making. If he can improve on his 6-2 record over Stepanek he will face the winner of French wild card Mathias Bourgue and Spanish qualifier Jordi Samper-Montana in the second round. His next anticipated challenge will come in the form of Ivo Karlovic with another giant John Isner projected in the fourth round. From there, Kei Nishikori and defending champion Stan Wawrinka will likely stand between Murray and a place in a first ever French Open final.

For now though, Murray's attentions are on the first hurdle and the prospect of facing an opponent with playing time in his legs.

"The qualifiers will have played three matches," said Murray when asked about the pitfalls of opening against a qualifier. "They are probably feeling pretty good about their conditions and comfortable on the courts."

More importantly for Murray, he avoided his sparring partner Nadal, who landed in the top half with Novak Djokovic. That little shift was enough for some pundits to promote the Briton to second-favourite at the expense of the nine-time champion. Whatever the odds, Murray deserves his place in the conversation after an incredibly impressive 14 months on clay.

Going into 2015, the 29-year-old had never won a title on the dirt. Now he has three, the most recent of which came last week in Rome as he halted a four-match losing run against Djokovic with a straight-sets victory over the Serb in the final.

A renewed commitment to aggression lifted Murray over the finish line at the Foro Italico, but his most recent success on the red surface was built from the ground up. He has made huge improvements in his movement on clay, something the world No.2 admits himself, and his ability to slide freely and remain balanced has helped his confidence soar. As a result, he has moulded himself into one of the world's leading clay-court players. Quite the achievement for a player who grew up on the quick surfaces of Scotland.

'With the way things went in Rome and Madrid, there is no need to rush'

Murray's improved results on clay coincided with the time he spent working with Amelie Mauresmo. It's arguably the most definitive legacy from their groundbreaking partnership, on court at least. But after the duo parted ways earlier this month, Murray will work alongside close friend and former player Jamie Delgado in Paris.

"With the way that everything went in Rome and Madrid, you know, things obviously are going well just now, so there is no need to sort of rush into [coaching decisions]," he said. "I'm happy with the work I have done with Jamie so far. We get on well away from the court and he's a very good people person. He gets on well with my whole team and I find it very easy to chat to him. On top of that he is very, very experienced around the tour."

After his morning session with Nadal, Murray looked relaxed as he sat in front of the world's media. Asked why he often practices with Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer when his fellow members of the big four tend to avoid hitting with each other, his response drew some laughs from those assembled.

"Well, they normally beat me so maybe they're a bit happier to practice with me," he offered with a wry smile.

If Murray can continue his current form, normal may just begin to look a little different over the next two weeks.

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