Rafael Nadal walked all over Andy Murray in the blazing sun on Friday on his way to Sunday’s final of the French Open, where he must beat Novak Djokovic to win his ninth title and remain No1 in the world. It is no less than he deserves.
The Spaniard was so superb for so long that the scoreline of 6-3, 6-2, 6-1 was not only an embarrassment to the loser but suggested that, had they played a fourth set, the symmetry would have continued all the way to zero for Murray. The exercise detained the defending champion for an hour and 40 minutes, ridiculously short for the semi-final of any tournament and, statistically, Murray’s worst beating in a slam.
“That’s the toughest match I’ve played against him,” Murray admitted. “I was very disappointed with how that match ended. I’d like a few days to think about it and get ready again. I didn’t give myself a chance in any of the sets. You want to make it competitive, hard for him and I wasn’t able to do that. You can’t always control how your opponent plays.
“There were a few too many sets this week where I could have finished matches quicker. I only have myself to blame for that.”
Murray now heads for the reassurance of the grass at Queen’s and Wimbledon, where he reigns, and might even have the benefit of a new coach. “I haven’t spoken to anyone since the tournament began [about succeeding Ivan Lendl as coach]. I would hope to have someone in place [for Wimbledon], 50-50. I don’t know,” he said.
“I’ve played a lot of tennis the last couple of weeks, the most in a two-week span in the last six months, since I came back [from injury]. Going on to the grass in some ways will help me. You need to try to learn from it and what exactly went wrong.”
Amid all the gloom, the former two-time French Open champion Jim Courier, who also once lost a slam final when winning only six games (the 1991 US Open against Stefan Edberg) observed. “He should hold his head high. He’s just lost to someone who played nearly a perfect match.”
It could be argued that Murray did not play altogether poorly, more that Nadal did not allow him to play anywhere near as well as he can. The Spaniard said, in towering understatement: “I think I played my best tennis of the whole fortnight today,” adding his customary humble rider, “I have to play my very best to have any chance on Sunday”. If he plays like he did against Murray, he will have few worries.
There were moments in the first two sets when Murray might have made a better fight of it but his game was too passive, allowing Nadal to dictate nearly every exchange. Even his normally sound defensive game unravelled under pressure and pretty much nothing went right for him. When Nadal’s forehand hit a footprint at 4-2 in the second set and spoiled Murray’s reply, followed within a shot by another break, the match was hurtling towards its inevitable end. When Nadal served out to love for a two-set lead, there was a growing air of despondency in Murray’s box, reflected by the player’s downcast features.
He now needed a comeback the likes of which nobody in the game has seen, certainly not at this level against this opponent. Murray has beaten Nadal in slams three times but not this time. Only Robin Soderling has done that.
Nadal’s already high level refused to dip and he broke with discomforting ease in the third game of the third set.Murray said on at least three occasions during this tournament that defence is the building block of success in all sport. Quite why this thought was so prominent in his thinking is hard to say but it obviously had consumed him on Friday because he steadfastly refused to give his opponent a sustained lash of his racket, choosing instead to move the ball with caution – and that provided no platform. On the warmest day of the fortnight, he played with energy-consuming care rather than with the ruthlessness and zest required to make his opponent at least uncomfortable.
A third of his returns of Nadal’s high-grade serve were dropping inside the service boxes, gifts that the champion accepted on nearly every occasion. There was simply not enough depth on Murray’s ground strokes. And the punishment continued unabated to the end, the second break of the set greeted without surprise around the court.
All Murray could hope for in the face of this unbroken excellence was a little late defiance, a gesture at least. It did not come. Serving, against all hope and logic, to stay in the match, his last contribution to the entertainment was running in pointless pursuit of Nadal’s crosscourt smash, resembling a child chasing a car down the street.