Andy Murray eager to overcome odds and baguettes against Rafa Nadal

The British No1 has suffered injury and mishap but believes he can beat the five-times champion in Paris

Andy Murray walks into Rafael Nadal's ochre-tinged garden of serial disappointments on Friday on one reliable leg, rattling like an aspirin bottle, nursing a sore throat as well as a tooth he chipped on a baguette and sporting one of his less appalling haircuts. How can he lose?

Jaw set against the prevailing wind, Murray is a very British hero before a ball is struck. He stands on the burning deck armed with only a tennis racket and a resolve to turn back the tide of misfortune that has washed over him the past fortnight.

Murray has never played Nadal at Roland Garros, where the Spaniard has lost once in six years and 44 matches (to Robin Soderling in 2009 on two crocked knees), but he ignores the odds because, in his own mind, they are invariably stacked against him. Nadal is a prohibitive 1-6 favourite.

From the moment the world No4 sent a scare through tennis by pulling out of a charity hit-up two weeks ago with a groin strain, he has been wreaking comic havoc in Paris although, when he got lost on the Métro on the way to dinner with his mother, Judy, he was trying to stay grounded, to do something normal in what, clearly, is not an entirely normal world. He embraces the surreal.

Then came his Mr Bean moment. "I was on the way back from the courts after I beat [Viktor] Troicki," he says of the tooth incident. "I bit into a baguette and it kind of snapped. 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. I've not been to the dentist for ages and he sorted it out within 15 minutes."

The finest tennis player these islands have produced since Fred Perry will not see himself as a woebegone nitwit – and he is far from that – but his otherworldliness is also his strength: opponents are often as bemused by him on court as those employed to chronicle his pronouncements are off it.

His analysis of his chances, over a dish of pasta, chicken and vegetables in the players' lounge, cuts to the heart of his challenge. "It's tough," he says, in his addictive search for demons. "The conditions here have been so tricky. It's not that easy with the way the wind's been blowing around to stick to [a plan].

"You have to be the aggressor [against Nadal] but it doesn't mean going for outrageous winners. It means keeping the ball to a good length and hitting it hard and with a good margin so, if he leaves one short, you can come forward. I won't just think that on the second point I have to go for a winner because I don't want the rally to go for five or six shots. On clay, against everyone, you need to play long rallies.

"It's the trajectory of the ball you hit. You can still hit a very aggressive shot but give it a metre of height over the net and make sure it's not going to land [just] an inch from the line. You can still make the move. If you hit a good wide serve to the deuce court, you can hit the forehand high and up the line without having to run from one corner to the other. Then you might get the short ball and that might be the time to go for it – but you have to be careful not to get dragged into panicking that you need to finish the points quickly, which I have done a few times this tournament, hitting a lot of drop shots, going for flat balls early in rallies. It just doesn't work.

"You have to be willing to work for points. If he loses some of the longer rallies, that creates doubt for him whereas, if he sees you rushing the net, serve-volleying all the time, it's so tough to keep it up.

"[John] Isner at the end of the fourth set and the beginning of the fifth [when the American surprised Nadal in the first round], started serve-volleying from nowhere. He started to rush. You have no chance when you do that."

Others have progressed here serenely, none more so than Novak Djokovic who goes into his semi-final against Roger Federer, second up on Court Philippe Chatrier (an unsubtle nod to the demands of television) after four days' rest. If the Swiss cuts the Serb down it will end his 43-match run, and surprise a lot of good judges.

Djokovic will start favourite – even though Federer has played with his customary stealth. Apart from having to extend himself in a tie-break against Feliciano López in the first round and perhaps in brief moments against Gaël Monfils, the Swiss has been a picture of calm. Djokovic dropped a set to Juan Martín del Potro, no black mark, but will appreciate his walkover against Fabio Fognini after tough matches in Madrid and Rome.

Murray has not dwelt on the prospect of playing either of them in the final; they, however, are wary of him – as is Nadal, who said on Wednesday he would rather be playing someone else. Murray, though, cannot wait to get the Spaniard on court for the 15th time in their careers.

"I've just known him a long time," Murray says. "I know his game well. I like playing against him. I understand that Rafa could probably get away without playing his best match on clay against me and I understand that I'm going to have to play my best to give myself a good chance. I definitely feel like the underdog."

Those searching for a key to the Scot's psyche might seize on such negativity as evidence of trepidation but it is Murray's nature to prepare for the worst, because it gives him strength. "It's a really good challenge to have," he says.

If he walks on court on Friday with his pants on fire it would be of a piece with one of the game's weirdest Parisian odysseys.

Nadal should win to meet Djokovic in Sunday's final – if the weather holds.

Contributor

Kevin Mitchell at Roland Garros

The GuardianTramp

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