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Andy Murray all set to sink his teeth into Rafael Nadal

Andy Murray was taking no chances yesterday. Having had to visit the dentist the previous day after losing a chunk of a tooth while chewing on a baguette, the Scot played it safe as he discussed his French Open semi-final today against Rafael Nadal over lunch.

He arrived carrying a plate of pasta, chicken and vegetables, without a piece of crusty bread in sight.

You get the impression, nevertheless, that very little could throw Murray out of his stride at the moment. The world No4 has reached the semi-finals of what has always been his most challenging Grand Slam tournament despite an almost daily round of niggles, from the moment he pulled out of an exhibition match with a groin problem only three days before the start.

"For sure, this has been by far my most satisfying run to a Grand Slam semi-final because of everything that's happened since I got here," Murray said.

"I hurt my groin in the first practice and I couldn't do much for a few days before the tournament. Then I suffered the ankle injury, which I've never had in a Slam before. That was quite difficult for me.

"I've had to make a lot of comebacks in matches and close sets and there was even stuff like the dentist and waking up yesterday morning with a sore throat. I'm not finding those things that difficult to deal with now. It's become more routine."

Now, however, comes by far the toughest test yet, a semi-final against the king of clay and world No1, who is seeking to join Bjorn Borg as the only man in history to win the Roland Garros title six times.

Considering the players Murray has beaten to reach this stage - they have been ranked Nos 124, 126, 95, 15 and 34 in the world - it is a massive step up in class, though the Scot has plenty of reasons for optimism.

Not only has Murray enjoyed his best season on clay, but Nadal also tends to bring the best out of him. Since losing his first five matches against an opponent who has been a friend since their teenage years, Murray has won four of the last nine, including two in Grand Slam tournaments.

He has lost all three of their matches on clay, but has improved with each contest, to the point where he won a set in their Monte Carlo semi-final two months ago.

For all those reasons Murray was in a relaxed mood as he lunched beneath Court Phillipe-Chatrier, where he will walk out at 1pm BST this afternoon.

If Murray can seem like a perpetually angry young man on the court, he is very different away from it.

As he told the story of his dental drama, a smile crept across his face at the absurdity of it.

"I just bit into a baguette and it kind of snapped. I felt it, but it was still in position. When I got back I looked in the mirror, fiddled around and pulled it out. I had a good old look down the gum and there was a nice big hole."

The French tennis federation's dentist carried out a quick repair as Murray got over the latest distraction to his quest to win his first Grand Slam title.

Now he can concentrate on a task that, for most players, has often been as painful as pulling teeth, though Murray always welcomes the chance to test himself against Nadal.

"I've known him a long time," Murray said. "I know his game well. I like playing against him. Even when we practise we always play well against each other. It's always really intense.

"I obviously want to make it very, very competitive tomorrow. But I understand that Rafa could probably get away without playing his best match on clay against me.

"I'm going to have to play my best to give myself a good chance. I definitely feel like the underdog, but it's a really good challenge to have."

Had he learned from his previous clay-court matches against Nadal?

"I think so, because it's a surface that has definitely taken me longer to mature on, to understand how I needed to play.

"I still need to practise a lot on clay and I still need to play a lot more matches till I get to that consistent level that Rafa's been at.

"But he's the benchmark that you want to look to get to. It's taken time, but I think slowly people have got closer to him.

"It's like Roger Federer on grass. The guys have started to get a bit closer.

"I don't necessarily think it's through Roger or Rafa getting worse. I just think it happens naturally, that guys tend to catch up and raise their level."

Nadal, who celebrates his 25th birthday today, has lost only once in 43 matches on these courts - to Robin Soderling two years ago.

He has lost twice on his favourite surface in best-of-three-sets Masters Series finals to Novak Djokovic, who will take the Spaniard's world No1 ranking if he beats Federer in today's other semi-final.

Nadal's play was so patchy in his first four matches here that he said he was not playing well enough to defend his title.

If Murray needed any further encouragement he might have got it from reports of Nadal's final training session yesterday. The Spaniard practised with a junior, Hugo Dellien.

On the last point Nadal told him: "OK, whoever wins this point wins everything."

The 17-year-old can now claim the first victory by a Bolivian over the world No1.

Belfast Telegraph

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