Sunday May 10th, 2015

No less than a week ago, Andy Murray did not have a single clay court title to his name. Seven days later he has two, the biggest of which came on Sunday with a 6-3, 6-2 win over defending champion Rafael Nadal in the final of the Madrid Open. The title came just six days after Murray won his maiden clay title at the Munich Open. The Brit is now 9-0 on clay this season. Nadal, who has yet to win a European clay title this year, will drop to No. 7 in the ATP rankings on Monday, the first time he'll be out of the top five since 2005. 

Murray has always been underrated on clay. All the numbers point to a breakthrough clay season for the Brit. Before last Saturday, he had never even made a clay court final. Coming into the Madrid Open he had notched just one win over a top 10 player on clay in his career. He went on to beat three top 10 guys this week: Milos Raonic, who will move up to a career-high No. 4 on Monday, Barcelona champion Kei Nishikori and then Nadal in the final. His win over Nadal was his first in seven tries against him on clay.

Instant Replay: Madrid Open's best highlights

But Murray has always been good on clay. He trained on clay at the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Spain as a teenager. His speed and tennis IQ are perfect for the surface. He just happened to be playing in an era that features the best clay-courter of all time in Nadal and one of the men challenging him for the current King of Clay mantle, Novak Djokovic. Murray is a two-time French Open semifinalist, most recently losing to Nadal last year. In fact, in the seven times he made the semifinals at the French Open or Masters on clay, he lost to either Nadal or Djokovic. That he was able to break through to win Madrid this year is not a seismic shock.

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With Djokovic skipping the event, Federer crashing out early and Nadal struggling, Murray's consistency and confidence helped him grind through the draw under difficult conditions. The Munich final wasn't completed until Monday, which meant he arrived in Madrid a day later than everyone else. A dramatic day of lengthy matches on Wednesday pushed his opening round match well past midnight, finishing at 3 a.m. locally. He got a little bit lucky that his next two matches came against fatigued or injured opponents in Marcel Granollers and Raonic but played his best match of the week in the semifinals, beating Nishikori 6-3, 6-4. 

On Sunday he took advantage of a shockingly erratic Nadal to build early leads in each set and hold on. Nadal played his best match of the season in the semifinals against Tomas Berdych, pounding his forehand to a 7-6, 6-1 win. That level and consistency was absent on Sunday. Nadal hit 18 winners to 26 unforced errors, while Murray kept things cleaner, hitting 11 winners to 14 unforced errors. Murray's backhand withstood the barrage of topspin from Nadal and he was able to lean on it for offense to control rallies. The biggest surprise was how easily Murray was able to defend the Achilles heel of his game: his second serve. Serving at just 60 percent on first serves in, Murray was able to win an astounding 81 percent of his second serve points, compared to Nadal's more conventional 46 percent. By comparison, Murray won 54 percent of his second serve points against Nishikori.

Another perplexing performance from Nadal. This isn't the first time Nadal has struggled on clay. Last season he went into the French Open with just one European clay title, which he won via retirement in Madrid. He still went on to win the French Open. Things can turn on a dime for Nadal on clay. It can take just one match to snap things into place. That match looked to be his semifinal win over Berdych on Saturday. Nadal crushed 24 winners to 11 unforced errors, with 16 of those winners coming from the forehand side.

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But on Sunday he hit just five forehand winners. Murray's defensive abilities may affect those numbers but Nadal's ill-timed errors, often off neutral balls, were astounding. Paul Annacone and Tracy Austin, commentating for Tennis Channel, were left speechless as the Spaniard went from playing a dominant, perfect point to spraying an easy shot for no reason on the next. As solid as Murray was, he still gave Nadal plenty of opportunities to get back into the match. But even when Murray let up and played more passive tennis, Nadal couldn't execute. He went 0 for 3 on break points opportunities but also fell short on a number of 30-all, 15-30 points that let Murray off the hook. That's the sign of nerves and a lack of confidence.

Nadal began the European clay season by making the Monte Carlo semifinals and competing well against Djokovic in a straight set loss. There were positives to be taken in that week and reason to believe the Spaniard would continue to build up his level to peak right around now. But after tumbling out of Barcelona to Fabio Fognini and switching back to his old Babolat racket, he played a similarly poor match to let Murray run away with the title. He has one more week to get his game, and his forehand in particular, back in order. 

Watch one of Nadal's highlights below:

[youtube:https://youtu.be/twTuoU5Uhtg​​]

Murray's resurgence continues. In January he made his first Slam final since winning Wimbledon in 2013. Since the beginning of March he has lost only to No. 1 Novak Djokovic, the same man who beat him in the Australian Open final. The opportunities have presented themselves and Murray has taken advantage. Outside of Djokovic, no one has had a firm grip on the season. Federer has played selectively and has been a non-factor at the biggest events on clay, losing in the opening round of Monte Carlo and Madrid. Nadal and Stan Wawrinka are struggling. Berdych is a consistent semifinalist but nothing more. Nishikori and Raonic are on the cusp of being consistent contenders but have continued to fall just short.

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While the top 10 is in flux, Murray has firmly planted himself as the second-best player this season. In the ATP's Race to London standings, which measure the points accumulated solely in 2015, Murray is at No. 2 after winning his biggest title since Wimbledon two years ago. By comparison, Nadal is No. 6 and Federer is No. 7. Odds-makers have already put Murray, rather aggressively, at No. 3 to win the French Open behind Djokovic and Nadal. Undefeated since getting married in April, Murray is a pretty happy man these days:

A big question for this week is whether he will play the Italian Open in Rome or take the two weeks off before the French Open to rest after grueling back-to-back tournaments. Even if this momentum doesn't pay off in Paris, Murray is setting himself up for a strong run through the grass and summer hard courts. 

Watch match highlights below:

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