May 17, 2014
Make no mistake, Andy Murray could and should have notched his first ever clay-court victory over Rafa Nadal in Rome.
Instead, a series of baffling unforced errors saw the battling Brit blow his big chance to make some personal history.
This was gloriously unpredictable tennis, one moment almost superhuman in its breath-taking brilliance, the next so flawed that it almost bordered on the ridiculous.
Murray led 4-2 in the final set, having taken the first 6-1. That’s when cold Scottish ruthlessness should have taken hold. But Nadal, who took the second set 6-3, refused to bow to a man who had never defeated him on his favourite surface. Even though Murray also led 5-4 in the third, he threw his big opportunity away quite needlessly and perished 5-7.
Rafa was there for the taking, yet Andy failed to summon the self-belief and intensity to finish the job.
Even so, there were encouraging signs for both men as we near what are virtually back-to-back Grand Slams this European summer.
Nadal reminded himself of an old truth: if he applies his extraordinary fighting spirit to any testing situation, he can emerge triumphant, just because that warrior-like intensity can still intimidate opponents and leave them in pieces if sustained for long enough. The Spaniard isn’t his former unbeatable self on clay. And Novak Djokovic must surely be favourite for the French Open at Roland Garros.
Yet Rafa still showed flashes of sheer genius in the Eternal City. He mixed bruising power with deft drop-shots, a stunning fusion which proved decisive when it really mattered.
What of Wimbledon champion Murray? Despite his lingering back problems, there were glimmers of hope for the British favourite. He used bludgeoning forehands to earn countless promising positions. The winning Murray rhythm returned for long spells. The talent remains, undiminished, latent. And with more confidence, Murray could hit even more impressive heights this summer.
With a Wimbledon crowd behind him, Murray cannot be ruled out on home territory.
For the first time this year, it seems possible that he might just be able to retain his Wimbledon crown, if the draw opens up for him. It will be hard, because Andy won’t start favourite. Yet in Rome he gave us some grounds for optimism. Murray has had a torrid time since winning that Wimbledon title last summer. Yet he showed in Rome that his game is still strong enough to threaten the greats.
Murray’s mentality needs some serious attention. Psychological strength, which came to Andy so spectacularly under Ivan Lendl’s guidance, must be rediscovered – and fast. But in a sense, time is on his side. Andy had the beating of Rafa in Rome. In the end, the only player he lost to was himself.
Murray has a few weeks to think about that. If he can persuade his mind and body to work in perfect harmony, Andy might become a hero all over again at the biggest Slam of them all.
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