Andy Murray spent the semifinals in Monte Carlo trying to figure out how to beat the unbeatable Rafael Nadal on clay. Andy didn’t succeed but he made notable progress.

Andy Murray has already gone two further rounds than he did all last year on clay by getting to the semifinals here in Monte Carlo. Unfortunately, that means it was time to face the clay terminator Rafael Nadal. I, for one, think it is way too much to ask Murray to jump from his previous status as a middle of the pack clay courter to a terminator beater, but what he can do is keep the pressure on Novak Djokovic until grass and hard court come along and then pass Novak to take the number three ranking, and who knows, maybe number two while he’s at it.

TENNIS - ATP Masters Series 2009 - Nadal and Murray Exhibition Match

I’m not enough of a stathead to know whether Andy made up any points on Novak this week because Novak is into the final (he beat Stanislas Wawrinka in three sets in the other semifinal), but I do know that Novak has to reach three semifinals and a final this clay court season to keep from losing ranking points, so Andy has a good shot at gaining on him if he keeps getting to semis. And it’ll get a bit easier if Roger Federer starts regularly bowing out in the third round as he did this week.

The first thing you noticed when you watched Rafa and Andy is court positioning. Rafa was running side to side on or near the baseline and Andy was so far back he could have picked a linesperson’s pocket. Honestly, when the camera was looking over Andy’s shoulder, he was so close to the stands that you couldn’t see his legs.

That puts a lot of pressure on the guy who’s wandering in the hinterlands. It’s difficult to hit a shot hard enough to get it by the speedy Rafa from back there and by the fifth game of the first set, Rafa was getting a good selection of overheads and approaches to put away. Andy had to hang on for dear life just to get to 2-4 in the first set.

Playing back there also means you have to cover a lot of ground – doubly important this week because there was a lot of rain in Monte Carlo and Andy had to play one and a half matches yesterday – the second of which took more than two hours to complete. Rafa played two matches also but they were significantly shorter and besides, he appears to have an infinite source of energy relative to everyone else.

Rafa won the next two games to take the first set 6-2 but really, Andy didn’t look that bad, he just played too defensively. Still, he now had a tough decision to make because Andy isn’t comfortable going for big shots and Rafa eats you up at the net. For the first part of the set I could actually see Andy’s legs so I knew he’d moved closer to the baseline, but he lost his serve to go down 1-3 in a game where he made a point of going for big shots.

That seemed to deflate Andy and he retreated back to the hinterlands thus finding himself right back where he was in the first set, down 2-5. Then, sure enough, he appeared to find the right balance between defense and offense. After a titanic struggle, he broke Rafa to get back on serve at 4-5 and pushed the match to a tiebreaker. He wasn’t hugging the baseline but he was going for lines when he had an opening and the tiebreaker was scintillating.

Rafa got up 3-0 in the tiebreak right away but it took a ridiculous inside out forehand to do it. I’d bet a thousand dollars that the number of inside out forehand winners Rafa hits absolutely dwarfs the number of winners he hits from the ad side of the court. Andy stormed back from those two mini-breaks to get on serve, but Rafa hit a ridiculous backhand winner this time and that put him up 6-4.

Rafa won the next point and the tiebreak and though I don’t see Andy beating him in clay this season, you could see Andy working it out in his mind as he went along and finally he landed on something that allowed him to play even up for the last four games of the match and push Rafa to have to make ridiculous shots.

I’m hardly going out on a limb when I say that Andy looks like he’ll be the number two somewhere around the U.S. Open barring injury or any other unforeseen circumstances. Is there any reason to think otherwise?

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