Rafael Nadal survived Mkhail Youzhny’s best efforts to become the latest player to inflict another upset on him this season in the third round of the Italian Open. Last week’s Madrid winner beat the world no.16 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-1 to set up an intriguing clash against Andy Murray.
Nadal was once again in danger of a shock defeat at the hands of another player he has a dominating head to head lead over. Youzhny edged the world no.1 in the first set tiebreaker and then broke to lead 2-0 in the second set. But, just as he did the previous night against Simon, Nadal regrouped and took control of the match to make the last eight at the ATP 1000 event for the eighth time in nine visits,
The contest will be the first between Nadal and Murray since 2011 when Murray beat Nadal in the Tokyo final. The two were also drawn to meet in Miami in 2012 but Nadal withdrew. That put the head to head at 13-5 in Nadal’s favor. Four of those Nadal wins have come on the Clay, the last one at Roland Garros in 2011 which Nadal won in straights. Murray has pushed Nadal on his favorite surface though. The Scot took the second set in their 2009 Monte Carlo clash.
That Murray should be able to push Nadal on the Clay is not such a surprise considering their history. The two both trained in Barcelona as juniors where clay is the predominant surface and competed against each other on the junior circuit. It was Nadal though who broke through first in the professional rankings, winning two French Opens before he met Murray in their first ATP match in 2007, a five set battle in the last sixteen of the Australian Open. And by the time Murray won his first Major at the U.S Open in 2012, Nadal had already amassed 11 slams and entered the debate about the greatest player of all time.
When Murray did finally make his slam breakthrough, tennis fans and pundits eagerly anticipated a battle between the more aggressive-minded Murray and his long-time rival Nadal. It was Nadal who had often blocked Murray’s way to slam finals, doing so three times in slam semis in 2011 when criticism of Murray’s perceived mental failings were peaking, and it was Nadal who was considered something of a litmus test when it came to Murray having a strong enough mentality to go the distance at a Major. But injuries and lapses in form for both players meant that clash never materialized.
Ironically, while Murray, who is still yet to find his best form since coming back from back surgery in January, is the weakest he has been since the early days of his rivalry with Nadal in 2007, this might be the best time for him to come against the Spaniard on the Clay. While Murray has struggled on the surface, losing to Giraldo in Madrid, he did beat Amalgro at that same event. And Murray has never been a feature in the Clay court winner’s circle. He has never even made the final of an ATP 1000 event. However, he is a former French Open semi-finalist and can handle himself on the red stuff.
Nadal’ meanwhile is having his worst Clay season since 2004, going out to Ferrer in Monte-Carlo and then Amalgro in Barcelona. Things improved in Madrid but even though he managed to win the title, it is widely thought that had Kei Nishikori not injured his groin in the second set, Nadal would have suffered another Clay court defeat. The Spaniard also dodged another bullet against Gilles Simon in his opening match in Rome as the Frenchman pushed him all the way to 2-2 in the third set before Nadal took control of the match.
The match against Murray tomorrow will be another battle that Nadal will have to dig deep to win. Both players are struggling and are about to go into the French Open and Wimbledon, their best tournaments. Both will be eager to make a positive statement about where their games are at with potential big matches on the cards between them. Both will want to win and the fans will be the winners whatever the result as these two seemingly declining champions battle it out in what is a much-anticipated clash.
Commentary by Christian Deverille