Nearly seven years ago, John McEnroe caught up with Rafael Nadal seconds after he had clobbered Roger Federer in the 2008 Roland Garros final. It was the height of the Spaniard’s clay court reign; he had lost just one final on the dirt in his career at that point.
“What does one of these guys have to do to beat you?” McEnroe asked a young Nadal decked out in his Nike pirate pants and sleeveless t-shirt. “Be aggressive,” he said, as he scooted off to his next glory-filled moment of celebration.
Today, Andy Murray got that message and turned the clay-court tennis universe on its head, defeating the Spaniard in the Mutua Madrid Open final, 6-3, 6-2.
All Nadal could do was smile. He knew, deep down, that today wasn’t his day. That today he could not find his ‘calm,’ as he calls it. Today, he just was off, and badly off.
He hit long, wide and was continually out of balance. He framed shots that flew deep into the stands. His footwork was rickety, and his anticipation was sluggish. He didn’t seem to believe in anything, even when he is a master at revising strategy and tactics. No matter, his game imploded. Statistically, Murray won 80 percent of his points off his second serve — an unheard of accomplishment against Nadal.
The match was perfectly summed up in the last point: a return of serve from Nadal that landed in the net.
“To play Rafa in Spain is really rough,” Murray told a rather subdued crowd during the awards presentation. “I’m sure you will be playing your best at Roland Garros.”
The list of players to have even taken a set off Nadal in a Masters 1000 or Grand Slam final on clay is exclusive: Murray, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Kei Nishikori, Guillermo Coria and Mariano Puerta. Today, the Scot joined an even smaller group that has gone the distance. Murray defeated the undisputed “King of Clay” in an ATP final — at any level — on his surface; the only others to have done so are Djokovic (four times), Federer (two times), and Horacio Zeballos (once).
The loss is Nadal’s fourth on clay this season and it’s the first time since 2004 that he hasn’t won a clay-court tournament in three appearances: Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and now Madrid. Today’s result will push him out of the world’s Top 5 for the first time since 2005. He is projected to land at No. 7 come tomorrow morning when the ATP rankings are released.
The win extends Murray’s string of victories to 9-0, which has earned him two clay court titles in two weeks. He won Munich last Monday, defeating Philipp Kohlschreiber over two days. He had gone 10 years without winning a single title on clay beforehand.
(For what it’s worth, Murray’s victory also puts him at 9-0 since his wedding to Kim Sears. He emphasized the benefits of his nuptials by scrawling “marriage works,” on the cameral lens right after the win.)
“I have always said that when your private life in under control and you are happy that helps you on court,” he told Sky Sports later.
Murray has now accumulated 10 ATP Masters 1000 titles and his first on clay. Had Nadal won, it would’ve been his 28th.
Murray’s aggressive play, plus his belief and confidence, pulled him through the eye of the needle. He played close to the baseline and controlled those rallies, winning point after point — a strategy which has been the demise of many a player trying to one-up Nadal.
Murray sensed Nadal was off balance so he lulled him into well-worn patterns, like figure eights, then smacked winners with pace and determination. His patience matched his intuition time after time — which is not the norm for Murray.
“I haven’t been in this good physical shape on the clay in a couple years so I owe a big thanks to my team,” Murray said, again to Sky Sports. “I played a very good match and made few errors, and changed the height of the ball extremely well and that’s a reason he was mishitting some of his shots. I dealt with the nervy moments pretty well, too.”
With Spain (and its queen), Europe, and the entire sports world watching to see whether Nadal could bring home his fifth Madrid title, the routine nature of outcome must have been somewhat jarring to Nadal or, at least, surprising to a certain extent. Even for the man who takes nothing for granted, who has repeatedly has said, “That’s sport.”
The extend of Murray’s achievement remains to be seen, but for now, it’s a little otherworldly.