It’s a fact that has only grown less explicable with time: Andy Murray went 10 years before he reached his first clay-court final, and won his first clay-court title.
Yes, the Scot is from a land best-known for grass courts, but he trained extensively on clay, at the Sanchez-Casals Academy in Barcelona, as a teenager. And it shows in his game. Like any good dirt-baller, his strong points include consistency, speed, shot tolerance, defense, and passing shots. Yet Murray, who turned pro in 2005, only reached his first clay final at the BMW Open in Munich in April 2015. During his first decade on tour, all 48 of his finals, and all 30 of his titles, came on other surfaces.
What’s the most likely explanation for this surprising lack of success? First, Murray has typically only played on clay when necessary, in the lead-up to Roland Garros. Second, he has played in an era dominated by the best dirt-baller ever, Rafael Nadal. Murray lost his first six meetings with Rafa on clay—all in the latter rounds of Grand Slams and Masters events—before finally beating him in the Madrid final in 2015, one week after his Munich breakthrough. Third, the clay season comes just before Wimbledon, which has always been the most important event on the calendar for Murray. However much he wanted to win on clay, winning on grass meant more. However disappointed he was over a defeat in Paris, he knew London would soon be calling.
According to Murray, though, the main problem was physical. The surface was a strain on his body, and it only got worse, and more painful, as time went on.
“The last few years on the clay I would say [were] pretty bad,” Murray said in Madrid in 2015. “I didn’t enjoy playing really on this surface. I was just hurting really a lot of the times when I was training or preparing for this part of the season.”
But after recovering from back surgery, Murray felt better in 2015, and that spring he credited his coach at the time, Amelie Mauresmo, and his trainers, for making some “drastic” changes to his workout regimen.
There were two other events of note in Murray’s life in the days and weeks leading up to his first clay title. The first was his wedding, to Kim Sears, that April. In the past, marriage had been blamed for the demises of male champions like Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, but Murray saw the upside: “If you’re happy away from the court, and your private and personal life is good, that will help everything,” he said. Things would stay good for Murray for the next 18 months, a period when he reached his first French Open final, won his second Wimbledon, led Great Britain to its first Davis Cup title in 79 years (on clay), and finished as the year-end No. 1 for the first and only time.
What was the other event of note? In an incident that’s much better remembered than his title run that week, Murray uttered these immortal words to Lukas Rosol during their third-round match: “No one likes you on the tour. Everyone hates you.”
Can insulting an opponent lead a player to greater heights? We’ll never know for sure. But, in honor of Munich week and his eventual return to the tour, here’s a look at the highlights from Murray’s 7-6 (4), 5-7, 7-6 (4) final-round win over Philipp Kohlschreiber from 2015.
Whether you enjoy this exhaustive, 24-minute clip of Murray-Kohlschreiber will probably depend on how much you enjoy, and miss, long rallies. There are lot of them here, as both guys settle back and let the points evolve. In my opinion, it’s never boring. There’s something about a matchup between a one-handed backhand and a two-handed backhand—particularly when they’re as good as these guys’—that brings variety and contrast to points. Among players with two-handed backhands, Murray may have the most natural and effective one-handed slice.
Has Murray started to do anything differently on clay here? He said that his body felt better, which allowed him to move better, which in turn allowed him to defend better from deep in the court. And he does tend to drift backward in these points, before looking for ways to move forward again. If there’s something I miss about Murray’s game, it’s the slow reveal, and the complex process behind it. He can’t hit winners out of the blue, or even work the point to set himself up for a forehand kill, the way Nadal or Novak Djokovic do on clay; if anything, it’s Murray’s crosscourt backhand that is the point-opener. Tactically, Murray lets things unfold and looks for openings, which can be different with every rally.
Murray closes the first set with a backhand winner, and looks ready to close out the match when he serves for it at 5-4 in the second—he has always been justifiably proud of his ability to serve out matches. But he can’t do it against Kohlschreiber, who is fighting for his life in front of a home-country crowd. What, if anything, do I miss about the German’s game? There’s the backhand, of course, but I think my favorite thing about Kohlschreiber is the way he reacts to missed shots and opportunities. He doesn’t hide his emotions, but he doesn’t go overboard with them, either. He usually settles for a shrug, a frustrated shake of his head, and maybe a pair of palms raised upward in exasperation. It’s relatable.
If we’re looking for an answer as to why Murray didn’t have much success on clay for 10 years, we might find it during a rally at the end of the second-set tiebreaker. During the point, Murray has a chance to rip an inside-out forehand; instead, he ends up flipping a short, spinny ball that crawls over the net and lands short. Kohlschreiber makes him pay for it by stepping forward and crunching a backhand winner. The inside-out forehand is a shot that Nadal has ridden to 12 titles at Roland Garros, but it’s a shot that doesn’t come naturally to Murray. Patience is a necessity on clay, but so is the ability to put the ball away when you have the chance.
In the end, Murray prevails in his own complicated way. The key point comes with Kohlschreiber up 3-2 in the third-set tiebreaker. The German pushes forward and gains the advantage, and he looks poised to change sides up 4-2. But Murray ranges far to his left and sends a brilliant backhand pass crosscourt for a winner. With that shot, the momentum changes, and a few points later Murray has his first clay title.
Along with everything else, 2020 has robbed us of a chance to see what Murray was capable of producing on all surfaces—after intractable hip pain kept him off the singles court for nearly seven months last year, and a lingering pelvic bruise set him back to square one in November. Let’s hope Murray is ready whenever tennis does return. The sport is better with his complex game, his progressive thoughts—and his orneriness.