Baseline Buzz: Murray shock Rafa?
PARIS -- Sometimes in tennis if you're winning, in retrospect, it turns out you were really losing. And vice versa.
The game can turn that fast.
On Wednesday, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray found themselves on opposite sides of a 6-4 first-set score. Nadal was struggling with fellow Spaniard David Ferrer, and Murray was all over Frenchman Gael Monfils. Ninety minutes later, their positions had reversed.
Nadal closed out Ferrer in four sets, while Murray -- who had won the first two sets handily -- was beginning a fifth set with Monfils in the gathering darkness. At the very worst, it appeared, Murray would be completing his match Thursday.
"I left my court with [the Murray-Monfils score] 1-0, and when I arrived to the locker room was 4-0," Nadal said later. "You can imagine that I went to the shower and I didn't see. I didn't see nothing about that."
That's because Murray, looking forward to a pleasant night's sleep, barreled through to win the final set at love.
His reward? A daunting Friday afternoon semifinal date with Nadal, the No. 1 seed and the man who has won eight of the past nine titles at Roland Garros.
"Looking forward to it," Murray said, seeming to mean it.
These two players have a history unlike any other in the Open era. They are the only two since 1968 to have met multiple times in all four Grand Slam events. This will be their ninth meeting in a major.
Is there any reason to believe that the No. 7 seed can do something that only one player has been able to achieve against Nadal at the French Open? Can Murray pull a shocker along the lines of Robin Soderling's fourth-round victory in 2009?
ESPN.com tennis editor Matt Wilansky and senior writer Greg Garber riff on the possibilities in the newest installment of Baseline Buzz:
Garber: Let's cut to the chase. This matchup has not been kind to Murray over the years. He is 5-14 against Nadal for his career -- and a wretched 0-5 on clay, including the semifinals here three years ago. That's the bad news. The good? Murray has worked hard to become a better clay-court player. He beat Rafa 6-1 in the first set of their quarterfinal match three weeks ago in Rome and gave him a good go in a three-set loss. Of course, Ferrer beat Nadal in Monte Carlo and got trashed here in Rafa's private garden.
Wilansky: Rightfully so, Murray has been more or less an afterthought in Paris. The evidence speaks for itself: His 23-6 record at the French Open is significantly lower than what he's produced at the other Slams. But Murray has now reached the final four here for the second time. The last time he reached the semis was in 2011, and I'll give you one guess whom the Scot lost to -- in straight sets? I think we both know the answer, sir. What concerns me most with Murray is the rope-a-dope stuff (can we call it a tactic?) he employs during matches. Look no further than Wednesday's quarterfinal against Monfils. Tennis is inherently a game of ebb and flow, but Murray takes that to a new level. I'm afraid that if he isn't fully engaged, he has less of a shot than he already does against Nadal.
Garber: Here's another critical factor weighing against Murray: time on the court. He has spent a staggering (literally) 14 hours, 46 minutes out there through his first five matches, more than any other semifinalist. Rafa has spent the least, some 4 hours, 34 minutes less than Murray to be specific. This is no small thing, because Rafa has increasingly showed his age (28, for all of two days now) and he'll appreciate any edge in the physical category.
Wilansky: If there's a glimmer, and I do mean glimmer, of hope for Murray, he's had some success against Nadal in Slam events. He foiled Rafa's run in Australia four years ago and two before that in Flushing. As you can see, those wins were long ago and the surface was not clay, so this means little. To me, this also comes down to an eyeball test. As you mentioned, Murray has spent considerable more time on the court, but the manner in which he's comported himself has been far more manic. And I get it. That's his thing. But Murray spends as much time berating himself and cursing anything and anyone from Roland Garros to the Eiffel Tower as he does trying to mend his game when it goes astray.
Garber: To your point on Murray, don't discount the impact winning the 2012 US Open and 2013 Wimbledon had on his psyche. Murray was asked how he was different from the 2011 version that lost here in straight sets to Rafa. "I obviously know how to win these tournaments now," he said. "Back then I didn't. I was trying extremely hard, but I had never done it. So, yeah, hopefully that will give me a little bit more confidence and belief when I go on the court on Friday. It's definitely a big achievement [getting to the semifinals], but that's not what I came here to do. Yeah, my goals are different and my expectations are different to a lot of people. I expect a lot of myself."
Wilansky: Fair enough, but when it comes down to it, beating Nadal at the French Open, a tournament he's owned for nearly a decade, is the toughest ask in tennis. I'm not sure there's a close second. It's going to take a lot more than Murray's news-conference attitude adjustment to pull off this upset. Another thing: Against Ferrer, Nadal was bothered by the weather, specifically the wind. He said it affected his backhand, and to compensate, he started overhitting his forehand. Naturally, Nadal figured it out quickly. On Friday, this doesn't look like it will be a factor. The forecast calls for 81 degrees and clear blue skies in Paris. As Murray said, Nadal prefers the warmer weather, which is friendlier to a body that has endured a long history of aches and pains. The truth is, Mr. Garber, I am looking for any reason to give Murray some hope in the semifinals. I'm just not seeing it.
Garber: I can't say I disagree. I usually root for the underdog, but Murray seems to be out of his element. Actually, in many minds, Rafa is the underdog to win this tournament. Students of Experts' Picks already know that we both tabbed Novak Djokovic to win. Now, I'm kind of leaning toward Rafa.
Wilansky: The best we can hope for is a reasonably tight match, say four sets or so. Said Nadal, "Well, Andy can play on all surfaces. He can play really well on clay. There's nothing in his game that would prevent him from playing really well on clay. He's gone really deep in the tournament several times here." Rafa is absolutely right. Murray can play well on clay. But that's not going to cut it against the eight-time champ.