The French Open is a two-horse race no longer. Over the past three years, we have become used to watching Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic compete for the Coupe des Mousque-taires. But the landscape changed on Sunday night in Madrid when Andy Murray dispatched Nadal with almost contemptuous ease in front of his home crowd.
Previously hesitant on the surface, Murray has hit a vein of red-hot form just in time for the busiest part of the season. According to the leading coach Patrick Mouratoglou, it is now the Scot, rather than the nine-time champion Nadal, who represents the biggest threat to Djokovic's lifelong ambition of winning Roland Garros.
"I would say that Andy is one of the two big favourites for the French Open just behind Novak," Mouratog-lou, who works with the world No?1 Serena Williams, said. "He is just in a really good place at the moment. He is happy with his life and he believes in his game. Over the last three or four months, he has been playing better and better, like [Stan] Wawrinka when he won the Australian Open. It wasn't just one good tournament from Stan, he built up to it.
"Rafa, for me, isn't a favourite for Roland Garros at all. When Rafa was struggling on the hard courts, everybody thought he would be OK by the time he got on clay. But that has not been the case: he didn't even make the final in Monte Carlo or Barcelona. You can say that it's different in Paris, and it's different when it's best-of-five, but Rafa has not been his usual self so far this season."
Murray's 6-3, 6-2 victory on Sunday arguably represented the Scot's finest moment on the ATP tour (as opposed to the grand slams and the Olympic Games). You have to go back three years for the last time anybody - Fernando Verdasco, in that case - beat the King of Clay in Madrid.
It was far from being a great match. Nadal never found any sort of rhythm and shanked a large number of straightforward shots, particularly off his forehand wing. But still, a Masters title is no mere bagatelle, and the statistics are extraordinary: Murray came to Madrid with just one career win against a top-10 opponent on this surface, and then proceeded to take out Milos Raonic (No?4), Kei Nishikori (No?6) and Nadal (No?7) in successive days without dropping a set.
How do we explain the turnaround? "Marriage works," Murray wrote on the camera lens as he prepared to receive Madrid's strange totem-like trophy. Yet there are physical reasons, too. Thanks to the improvement in his back this year, he was able to put in a 10-day training block in Barcelona with his new assistant coach Jonas Bjorkman. It was "the first time in a while", he says, that his body was strong enough to cope with such a gruelling programme. Now the effects are showing. He has so much time on the ball that opponents are unsure how to break him down.
"I have always though Andy could be a good clay player but the main thing for me at the moment is he has got his tactics right," Marian Vajda, Djokovic's long-serving coach, said. "He is so strong. He has got himself so fit that he can stay in the long rallies and he enjoys that kind of thing. Plus his second serve has got a lot better and that was a big factor."
Mouratoglou agrees, while expressing surprise that it has taken this long for everyone to clock on to Murray's clay-court potential. "Andy has always had the style of game that would seem to suit clay," he said.
"He has good topspin on his serve, he has great hands for the drop-shot, he loves long rallies, he covers the ground so well, and he has learned how to run around his backhand to hit more forehands. People maybe exaggerate how much he has struggled with the clay. A lot of the time he was losing to Rafa or losing to Novak in the semis and people were saying he hadn't done well. But this year he really is looking like a threat."
Murray is due to decide today whether he will withdraw from the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome to rest his legs ahead of Paris. If he does play, he will open his campaign tomorrow against the Frenchman Jeremy Chardy, who eliminated Roger Federer from this event last year.