Andy Murray defies expectations, reaches French Open semifinals

PARIS -- On the eve of the French Open, Brad Gilbert, the former coach of Andy Murray, was asked if he thought the Scot liked proving people wrong.

"He loves a challenge," said Gilbert, who is now an ESPN analyst but worked with Murray for 18 months between 2006 and 2007, helping him break into the world's top 10. "Listen, there are a lot of athletes who are really good, they love the fuel of the fire, that's what drives them. I can't say he's the only one, but it's definitely something he likes."

By reaching the semifinals of the French Open, Murray has already defied the expectations of many who felt his lack of form, up-and-down health and a recent elbow injury might leave him undercooked in Paris.

If it is possible for the world No. 1 to have kept below the radar at a Grand Slam, then Murray has done it. Early losses in three of his four clay-court events left him short of matches, unsure why he was playing badly and not sure how long it would take him to get out of it.

Tennis is not usually like flicking a switch (unless you are Roger Federer); it's hard to just turn on top form when you have been struggling. But five wins here have put Murray one more away from a second straight appearance in a French Open final.

The problem for Murray, who saw off eighth-seeded Kei Nishikori 2-6, 6-1, 7-6 (0), 6-1 on Wednesday, is that the man standing in his way is Stan Wawrinka, the 2015 champion.

When Murray beat Wawrinka this time last year to reach his first French Open final, it was probably his best performance on a clay court. When the pair meet again at the same stage of this year's event on Friday, he may just have to top it. And then, if he gets past the Swiss, either nine-time champion Rafael Nadal or 23-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem, who took out 2016 champion Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals, will be waiting. It's a tall order.

"They are all obviously playing extremely well," Murray told reporters at his postmatch news conference. "Rafa's had a great clay-court season, as has Thiem. Stan this tournament has played great. [He] won in Vienna, so is obviously confident. I came in playing garbage. I'm the odd one out in the semis, but hopefully, I can keep it up."

Wawrinka has not dropped a set on his way to the semis, and his 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 win on Wednesday over Marin Cilic was every bit as impressive as it sounds. Beating him would be a huge effort, given where Murray has come from, but the Scot is enjoying winning without playing his best and knows anything is possible.

"I probably need to play better than I did today, but you never know," Murray said. "Sometimes, you just have to do what you have to do to win the match. It's not always about how well that you play or, you know, the level that you play at.

"The most pleasing thing about today is I didn't play my best and I won against a top player in a big match. We don't know what's going to happen on Friday, don't know how either of us are going to play, but with the right attitude, right game plan, right tactics, you can still win matches."

It won't be easy, but then, he loves a challenge.