The Mancunion

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Andy Murray in 2017

Much has changed in men’s tennis in 2017, but for Andy Murray, a great clay court season could confirm his status as one of British greatest ever athletes

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2017 hasn’t been a memorable year for Andy Murray so far. While he won his first tournament of the year in Dubai a couple of weeks ago, good results in the biggest tournaments have eluded him; he suffered a surprise defeat to Mischa Zverev in the fourth round of the Australian Open — after Novak Djokovic, the man who had beaten Murray in four Australian Open finals, had been sensationally knocked out in the second round by Denis Istomin — before Vasek Pospisil beat him in Indian Wells. Murray then pulled out of Miami with an elbow injury.

Murray’s position as World No. 1 is secure for the moment, despite his poor results, because Djokovic has also struggled, failing to replicate last year’s stunning form. But once the clay court season begins, Murray will have a heap of points to defend for the rest of the season.

For Murray though, he has more priorities than just retaining his number 1 ranking. Although the Scot has long been considered a member of the Big 4, his list of achievements, while impressive, cannot match those of Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. In particular, Murray’s haul of three Grand Slam titles pales in comparison to the 11 of Djokovic, 14 of Nadal and 18 of Federer. Those three players have also won each of the four Grand Slams at least once. Murray will likely be prioritising closing that gap, at least somewhat, and completing the Career Grand Slam — though he still needs to win the Australian and French Opens to do so.

The next chance for Murray to add to his tally will be at the French Open in May. Clay was long considered to be his worst surface, and his results confirmed that. Until 2015, despite reaching the semi-finals twice at the French Open, he only won one match on clay against a player ranked inside the world’s Top 10 — in 2009 against Davydenko at the Monte Carlo Masters. The last two years, however, have seen a shift in results, beating the likes of Stanislas Wawrinka, Djokovic and Nadal (twice), winning the Monte Carlo and Rome Masters titles, and reaching his third semi-final, and first final, at the French Open in 2015 and 2016 respectively, losing to Djokovic on both occasions. Murray is now a genuine contender to win in Paris, a prospect that previously would have seemed laughable.

To win this year’s French Open, though, Murray will need to regain the form that saw him overtake Djokovic in the rankings last year over the next couple of months. Djokovic’s travails will make Murray’s job easier, but others have thrived this season. None more so than Roger Federer, who was the surprise winner of the Australian Open in January, and Indian Wells. In doing so Federer has played the sort of tennis that has left fans the world over captivated; he glides across the court hitting winners seemingly at will. What makes Federer’s comeback all the more incredible is that he spent six months recovering from knee surgery and beat his arch-nemesis, Rafael Nadal, in five sets, the first time he had beaten the Spaniard in a Grand Slam match for nearly 10 years.

Whether Federer will be able to continue his sensational form on clay is another matter. Over the past few years his results have been worse on it than on grass or hard courts, as the slowness of clay partly neutralises his groundstrokes. With Wimbledon and the French Open separated by just three weeks, the Swiss maestro might focus his efforts on winning an eighth title at the All England Club.

A player who will be eagerly anticipating the move to clay, however, is Rafael Nadal, nine-time winner of the French Open and widely regarded as the ‘King of Clay’. While his defeat to Federer in Australia would have stung Nadal, reaching another Grand Slam final was a great achievement for someone who has suffered debilitating wrist and knee problems over the years. Even though he is lacking the consistent brilliance that he had in his prime, his groundstrokes are being hit harder and with more venom, meaning Nadal is a force to be reckoned with over the next few months.

As well as the Big Four, an intriguing collection of players will be looking to win big titles this year, from the mercurial big-hitting Stanislas Wawrinka to the returning Juan Martín Del Potro and the big-serving Milos Raonic.

Despite the wealth of talent in men’s tennis, though, Andy Murray demonstrated last year that he can dominate the sport. If he can put his current malaise behind him and recapture last season’s form, then he has a chance to complete his collection of Grand Slam titles and thereby secure his status as an all-time great.