PARIS — Andy Murray heads into the French Open buoyed by his form on clay, especially after handing top-ranked Novak Djokovic a stinging defeat recently.
Murray lost to Djokovic in last year’s semifinals at Roland Garros, but not before he frustrated the Serb by battling back from two sets down to force a decider.
Djokovic is well placed to highlight the improvements in the second-seeded Murray’s game, having lost 6-3, 6-3 to him in the Italian Open final last weekend.
“Second serve is one of the parts of his game that he was dedicated to. He did have some progress there,” Djokovic said on Friday. “He gets more depth and more speed on the second serve, which of course helps him a lot.”
Murray’s Grand Slam titles were on grass at Wimbledon in 2013 and on hard court at the U.S. Open in 2012, the year he also won the Olympics on grass, at Wimbledon.
Even though only three of his 36 career titles have been on clay, they have all been in the last 14 months.
Last year, Murray won back-to-back clay titles at Munich and Madrid, where he routed nine-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-2 in the final.
He opened this season on clay by reaching the Monte Carlo semifinals, where he lost in three sets to Nadal.
Defending his Madrid title, he beat Nadal 7-5, 6-4 in the semifinals before losing a three-set final to Djokovic – then gained revenge for that in Rome, celebrating his 29th birthday in style with a resounding win.
It was no mean feat, given that Djokovic is 119-9 overall since the start of 2015, a .930 winning percentage, while earning 16 titles. This year, Djokovic is 37-3 with a tour-high five titles.
But Djokovic was not surprised by the intensity of Murray’s play.
“I’ve known Andy for a very long time. Things are different now when we are No. 1 and No. 2 in the world than they were five or 10 years ago, when we even played doubles together in the Australian Open,” said Djokovic, who turns 29 on Sunday. “Our practice sessions are like official matches. Honestly, we practiced in Madrid recently and we played a set and a half. We both felt like we played a match.”
Djokovic and Murray will play a much bigger match if they meet as seeded in the June 5 final.
The likelihood of that looks more favorable than in previous years given the absence of 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer, who pulled out on Thursday after failing to shake off a back problem, Nadal’s struggles to get back to his best level on clay, and the inconsistent form of defending champion Stan Wawrinka.
Murray, a three-time semifinalist at Roland Garros, faces Czech qualifier Radek Stepanek in the first round.
“That’s tough, they have won three matches here,” Murray said when earlier asked about facing players who have come through the qualifying rounds. “They are probably feeling pretty good about their condition, and comfortable on the courts.”
Murray recently split with coach Amelie Mauresmo, and is in no hurry to find a new one.
“I have spoken a little bit to my team about it, but I haven’t spoken to anyone (else) yet,” Murray said. “Things obviously are going well just now, so no need to rush into anything.”