Nadal pumped up as Murray seeks clay court re­demp­tion

New Straits Times - - Sport -

WHETHER he likes it or not, Rafael Nadal will seek to rub­ber­stamp his sta­tus as the favourite for the French Open when he heads to the Rome Mas­ters to­day look­ing to un­der­line his re­turn to form on clay.

World No 1 Andy Murray may have wowed the crowds at the Foro Ital­ico last year when he bossed Ser­bia’s four-time cham­pion No­vak Djokovic in the fi­nal to claim his maiden win in the Ital­ian cap­i­tal.

But what was just the Scot’s third ti­tle on the sur­face, fol­low­ing wins in Mu­nich and Madrid, has never looked fur­ther away.

A year on from a tri­umph that sug­gested Murray had fi­nally mas­tered the tough­est sur­face of them all, the 29-year-old is back to square one after a hu­mil­i­at­ing exit to un­seeded 20-year-old Croat Borna Coric be­fore the busi­ness end of the Madrid Mas­ters be­gan ear­lier this week.

By con­trast, Nadal cruised to a 14-0 win record on clay when he ousted long-time ri­val No­vak Djokovic 6-2, 6-4 in the semi-fi­nals on Satur­day.

Cur­rently ranked fifth in the world, the Spa­niard played Aus­trian Do­minic Thiem in the fi­nal late yes­ter­day.

“It is a great re­sult,” said Nadal. “To win against No­vak by that score you have to be play­ing very well, oth­er­wise it’s im­pos­si­ble.”

Yet Nadal, com­ing back into form after two un­der­whelm­ing years, was quick to play down sug­ges­tions he was al­ready the favourite for the French Open and, by de­fault, the Rome Mas­ters — a tour­na­ment he is look­ing to win for the eighth time.

“I know that I am play­ing well. I’m on the right track,” added Nadal.

“It’s re­ally im­por­tant be­ing able to make it to another fi­nal in a Mas­ters 1000, es­pe­cially here in Madrid, at home. Right now I’m not think­ing of any­thing else.”

Given his past record in Rome — Nadal won seven titles from 2005 to 2013 — the 30-year-old Spa­niard can look for­ward to a rous­ing re­cep­tion from the no­to­ri­ously noisy Rome crowd.

Even moreso if he comes up against Murray, who, to his credit, has blamed him­self for an early-sea­son slump in form that has placed huge ques­tion marks over his chances of a Rome re­peat.

“There’s no blame on any­one, it’s down to me,” Murray said after an er­ror-strewn per­for­mance against Coric.

But Murray, who said he has been talk­ing to part-time coach Ivan Lendl “ev­ery Mon­day“, is hop­ing fortune turns in his favour.

“Things can turn around quickly in ten­nis. Borna lost in the qual­i­fy­ing here a few days ago. Now he’s in the quar­ters play­ing very good ten­nis. Things can change fast,” he added.

“But you need to have the right sort of ideas, cor­rect ideas, un­der­stand why you’re in the po­si­tion you’re in. Hope­fully I can do that with my team and play bet­ter in Rome and Roland Gar­ros.”

For the third straight clay­court Mas­ters 1000 event, Djokovic and Nadal have been drawn in the same half.

De­spite a straight sets de­feat to Nadal that sug­gested the Serb, too, has yet to reach his peak, Djokovic re­mains buoyed.

“It was a pos­i­tive week, a pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence. I take more pos­i­tives than neg­a­tives into the next week in Rome,” said Djokovic, the sec­ond seed in Rome.

“As I go along, I hope to con­tinue get­ting bet­ter and get­ting stronger.”

In the ab­sence of World No 1 Ser­ena Williams, who is preg­nant, top seed An­gelique Ker­ber has been drawn in the same quar­ter as Rus­sian Maria Shara­pova, who will play Christina McHale in the first round, and Madrid Open win­ner Si­mona Halep.

Maria re­turns to the event for the first time since re­turn­ing from a 15-month dop­ing ban. AFP

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