LONDON (Reuters) - Andy Murray has been the standout performer on clay for the past 12 months but world number one Novak Djokovic will be favorite to complete his set of grand slams at this year’s French Open.
Murray, according to the ATP Performance Zone stats, has won 85 percent of his matches on the red dust this year and last, more than any other player.
Having been at 70 percent for the first 10 years of his career, the improvement demonstrates just how at home the Briton now feels on a surface he once treated with suspicion.
His victory over Djokovic in Sunday’s Italian Open final may have been aided by his opponent’s energy levels being drained after a grueling semi-final win over Kei Nishikori the night before. But it also was a timely statement of intent from the world number two, who recently split with coach Amelie Mauresmo.
“The last couple of years, clay has probably been my most successful surface, which I never expected to be the case,” twice grand slam champion Murray said.
“But I’m not complaining about it. I’m going to Roland Garros with a lot of confidence.”
Djokovic’s loss to Murray — only his second in their last 14 meetings — will have planted a few seeds of doubt in the Serb’s mind as he again targets the one major to elude him.
After edging past Murray in last year’s semi-finals, the career slam seemed to be in the palm of his hand but he was hijacked in the final by a swashbuckling Stan Wawrinka.
That experience will simply add to his motivation though.
“I don’t feel shaken up by this loss,” Djokovic, the only player in the all-time top five winning percentages on clay not to have won Roland Garros, said after losing to Murray.
“Now it’s just fine-tuning,” added the 11-times grand slam champion, who turns 29 on Sunday.
Nine-times French Open champion Rafael Nadal, meanwhile, is not used to playing second fiddle to anyone in Paris — and there are signs the Mallorcan is rediscovering his old power.
Consecutive titles at Barcelona and Monte Carlo were followed by losses to Murray and Djokovic at Madrid and Rome, but the 29-year-old looks in far better shape than 12 months ago when he was humbled in the quarter-finals by Djokovic.
Nadal could potentially face another quarter-final with Djokovic as he will be seeded five, two places lower than Roger Federer who is struggling with fitness.
Of the other title contenders, world number four Wawrinka proved last year that, on his day, he can be almost unplayable.
Nishikori arrives in Paris having reached the final in Barcelona where he lost to Nadal and the semi-finals in Madrid and Rome, while Australia’s Nick Kyrgios and Austria’s Dominic Thiem will fly the flag for the young guns.
“Nick Kyrgios has made a strong move in 2016 and has the weapons and self-belief to beat most players,” former world number one Jim Courier, who will be commentating for British broadcaster ITV, said.
The American, however, expects Djokovic to prevail.
“If he plays his best it is hard to see anyone else winning, but the mental challenge of trying to win the one title he needs adds weight to this challenge for Novak,” Courier said.
Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by John Stonestreet