Andy Murray - ATP Masters Series Monte Carlo - Day Five

After a week only slightly less tranquil than the Mediterranean’s azure calm, three players nurse flickering hopes of thwarting Nadal’s march to a seventh consecutive Monte Carlo title.  Can any of them quell the terror of the terre battue?  Or perhaps the more realistic question:  who can muster the  most gallant resistance before the raging bull impales them on his horns?

Murray:  Of their thirteen previous meetings, only two have occurred on the surface least friendly to the Scot and most friendly to the Spaniard.  In a Monte Carlo semifinal two years ago, Murray rebounded from a lackluster first set to drag Rafa into a second-set tiebreak decided only after a series of epic, implausibly court-stretching rallies.  Their most recent collision ranked among the most thrilling best-of-three ATP matches of 2010, culminating in a final-set tiebreak that required all of Nadal’s trademark tenacity.  Often discomfited by opponents with penetrating backhands, the world #1 has expressed uneasiness when facing Murray on the hard courts where he has suffered all four of his losses to the Scot.  When the battlefields shift from blue and purple to red and green, Nadal has comprehensively dominated his rival.  While the third seed displayed surprisingly keen clay instincts this week, he never will possess the almost preternatural abilities of the Spaniard to conform his game with the surface.

But Murray has awakened more swiftly from his post-Australian malaise than in 2010, and his three victories this week have lifted his confidence to a position where winning has become familiar again.  As the considerable underdog in their semifinal, he should feel liberated from the pressure that has prevented him from showcasing his finest form in the most important moments of his career.  Since his week already has surpassed any realistic goals, however, he may resign himself to Nadal’s superiority should the match turn against him early.  The Scot can match the Spaniard in patience and in fitness but not yet in fortitude, a crucial test posed by the clay.

Melzer:  Hoping to score a third consecutive victory over Ferrer since the start of 2010, the Austrian lefty crushed the Spaniard en route to a Roland Garros semifinal last year.  Hampered by a back injury, his stirring quarterfinal victory over Federer may have left his energy depleted for what promises to become a fiercely contested semifinal.  Should he survive that encounter, Melzer has both the weapons and the attitude to topple the Monte Carlo champion, whom he conquered on a slow hard court in Shanghai.  The inflammable Austrian attacked Federer with a fearlessness perhaps amplified by awareness of his injury and the limitations that it imposed upon his durability.  When at his best, Melzer interweaves crackling forehands with delicate drop shots and superb reflex volleys.  At his worst, he senselessly sprays low-percentage shots with little purpose and less accuracy.  The challenge for his opponents, therefore, consists of weathering the crests while waiting to exploit the dips, either of which can arrive at any moment.

Uniting the few players who have troubled Nadal on his favorite surface (Davydenko, Soderling, Gulbis) are traits similar to Melzer’s flat, vicious ball-striking and determination to seize the initiative at all costs.  On the other hand, the Austrian never has reached a Masters 1000 final, much less collected one of these prestigious shields.    Moreover, he probably should consider himself fortunate to have escaped all seven of the break points that he faced against Federer, including more than one donated by errant second-serve returns.  Confronted with the six-time defending champion, Melzer would experience far sterner pressure and a return game that will force him into rallies on neutral terms or worse whenever he resorts to a second serve.

Ferrer:  Like Murray, the Spanish #2 has conquered his compatriot on four previous occasions and at both hard-court majors.  Handed an unexpectedly safe passage into the 2011 Australian Open semifinals was a Ferrer who expressed less exultation over his accomplishment than sympathy for Nadal.  The indefatigable grinder has won just one of his last eighteen sets against Rafa on clay, however, although he has come within a few points of snatching sets from him on multiple occasions.  Among these instances, last year’s Rome final featured a tense opening set from which Nadal narrowly extricated himself before tightening the vise around his diminutive countryman thereafter.  Plagued by few clear flaws but armed with few key strengths, Ferrer faces a nearly insoluble conundrum when he confronts a healthy Rafa.  Unable to outhit him from the baseline and uncomfortable at the net, he plays into the strategy of the world #1 by engaging in the wars of attrition that the latter rarely loses.  In contrast to fellow #2s Wawrinka and Troicki, though, Nadal’s relentless supremacy has not gnawed away at the Spanish #2’s self-belief in their encounters.  Even in a battle that he cannot win, Ferrer rarely fails to mount a valiant effort.  A 2011 all-Spanish final likely would offer considerably greater entertainment than the previous edition.