Murray goes down fighting after epic Wawrinka battle
First, the bad news: Andy Murray has failed to lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires for another year.
Still, after an injury-ravaged season, he sounded reasonably satisfied with his spectacular five-set defeat at the hands of Stan Wawrinka.
The word 'courageous' might not sit easily when a man is earning £440,000 for bunting a fuzzy yellow ball over a net. But anyone who watched this brutal tussle will appreciate the desperate commitment on both sides.
There was no repeat of Novak Djokovic's early check-out - as seen in his dismal quarter-final against Dominic Thiem; only bug-eyed focus.
In the final set, Murray must have felt like a soldier in a war movie, mown down by enemy fire as Wawrinka propelled winners in all directions. It took a defiant effort just to avoid a bagel.
But when you consider where he was a fortnight ago, throwing his racquets around in frustration at the inaccuracy of his own practice sessions, it was no small feat to go toe-to-toe with a heavyweight like Wawrinka. And, at one enticing moment, to stand within four points of victory.
"I'm proud of the tournament I had," said Murray after his 6-7, 6-3, 5-7, 7-6, 6-1 defeat. "I was one tie-break away from getting to the final when I came in really struggling. Maybe the lack of matches hurt me a little bit in the end today. That was a very high-intensity match (with) a lot of long points.
"When you haven't been playing loads, that can catch up to you a little bit over four hours.
"I have only myself to blame for the way I played coming in. But I turned my form around really, really well and ended up having a good tournament, all things considered."
Even though Murray lost, BBC analyst Pat Cash described it as his best performance of the fortnight.
His level ebbed and flowed more than he would have wanted, but he showed real cojones - first when snatching the first set via a nervy tie-break, and then when halting Wawrinka's run of seven straight games midway through the third.
During these periods, Murray's retrievals verged on the supernatural.
Wawrinka hits his overhead with pace and accuracy. But every time he dropped back to smash one of Murray's steepling lobs, he found himself questioning where to send the ball.
Half a dozen times, Murray retreated behind the baseline and made an improbable get, often reversing the momentum of the point.
The problem was that Wawrinka always had the heavier ordnance at his disposal. What a contrasting scenario to the one we saw here a year ago. On that occasion, too, these players met in the semi-final. The difference was that Murray dictated terms from the outset.
"Last year Andy was stronger," said Wawrinka after the match. "He was very aggressive, and he never really let me install my game. And that is really what I struggled with and what I found so frustrating. Today I think he's less confident. He played a bit less fast. He was a little more hesitant, and that gave me a bit more time."
Roger Federer might be able to return to the tour after a six-month break and win a grand slam at the first opportunity. This isn't feasible, though, for many other players.
Murray has to earn the right to challenge, to build his level win by win.
This match may have come a week too early, but it should still provide some much-needed momentum to his stop-start season.
"Often when I have done well on the clay, I feel like that's helped me a little bit on the grass," said Murray afterwards. "Certainly it's not as physical, so going through matches like I did today is a good step."
The level was the highest that Murray has reached all year. Wawrinka struck 87 clean winners, and almost every point of the final set seemed to end in a screaming line drive, hit low over the net with bewildering power and wicked spin.
There are a couple of concerns, though, for Murray's coaching team to address. For one thing, closing has been an issue for him since he lost to Kei Nishikori in the quarter-finals of September's US Open.
Up until that point, he had converted a 2-1 lead into victory on 40 successive occasions, dating back to January 2012.
Since then, the equivalent score is three wins and three defeats, with Juan Martin del Potro being the other player to pull off a comeback during last year's Davis Cup semi-final in Glasgow.
Could Murray have finished Wawrinka off in four sets? He had a glimpse early on, when he missed a very makeable drop shot that would have set up break point.
But the serves then dominated throughout the set, and the tie-break got away from him with the help of another botched drop-shot.
Once into the fifth, the momentum swung back for a final time, with Murray a step slow to the ball. Fittingly, Wawrinka finished the conversation with another blazing backhand up the line.
Murray can take many positives but there is one statistic that might worry him. In his last ten meetings with top-five players at the grand slams, he has won only once - in that same semi-final against Wawrinka last year.
Meanwhile, Rafael Nadal continued his romp through the draw with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 victory over Dominic Thiem.
Nadal, who will be bidding for an unprecedented 10th French Open title tomorrow, has yet to drop a set and has lost just 29 games in six matches - his lowest tally here and the least since Bjorn Borg in 1978.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)
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