Murray has yet to master clay

Martin Rogers

It is not often Andy Murray takes on the role of the underdog these days -- hardly surprising given his swift rise to No. 3 in the world.

Murray's French Open campaign has quickly turned into an uphill struggle, though, and reaching the latter stages is a task that won't get any easier.

The 22-year-old's second-round victory over Potito Starace was more testament to his spirit and determination than his form. The 6-3, 2-6, 7-5, 6-4 scoreline belied the fact that this was a match he may easily have lost.

Starace held set point at 5-1 in the third and was giving Murray all kinds of problems with his fiercely kicking ground strokes.

It took a mental meltdown from the Italian and a supreme display of tenacity from Murray to turn the set, and therefore the match, on its head.

The Brit is on course for a semifinal showdown with Rafael Nadal, but getting that far would be a monumental achievement. Next up is fiesty Janko Tipsarevic, with Marin Cilic and Fernando Gonzalez or Gilles Simon also potentially lying in wait.

Away from the fast hard courts, Murray is shorn of his aura of invincibility, unable to use his opponent's pace of shot to great effect. Once he is forced to take the initiative himself, as against Starace, then mistakes inevitably creep in.

The popular perception of Murray is that his latter junior years were spent training on clay at the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Spain. However, while he did relocate to Barcelona at age 15, virtually all of his training there was done on hard courts.

On clay, he is clearly behind Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and, of course, four-time defending French champion Rafael Nadal -- and is a prime target for a lower-ranked player seeking a big scalp.

Even so, Murray's fortitude and refusal to wilt were key against Starace, who won 11 of 14 games spanning the second set and much of the third but could not keep his nerve when it mattered most.

Murray has big designs on Roger Federer's No. 2 ranking, and it would be a surprise if he does not break into the top two at some point over the next couple of years. For now, though -- despite his courage and positive attitude -- the surge to take him past Federer will need to come during grass-court season and the U.S. hard-court campaign.

Murray is improving on clay and has shown he can grind out wins, but he is still a long way from mastering the dirt.