Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Murray in mint condition - Allout

Despite the Scotsman’s loss in the US Open final, victory in a Grand Slam event should come sooner rather than later.

The praise was fulsome after Andy Murray outplayed Rafael Nadal, the World No. 1, last week in the semi final of the US Open. “This will go down as the defining afternoon in Murray's career” wrote Lawrence Donegan in the Guardian. Yet, for all that the victory over Nadal, and the style it was achieved in, was impressive, what is even more striking is the fact that it was not surprising after Murray’s performances over the summer. In short, this summer has seen Murray join the tennis elite and, although his straight sets defeat at the hands of Roger Federer in the US Open final was disappointing, it will surely not be long before Murray is playing in his next Grand Slam final.

Earlier in the summer the situation was different. Murray had bombed out of the Australian Open in the first round and followed this up with a third round exit in the French Open. He was hovering just outside the top 10 in the rankings and it seemed he had stood still for a couple of years. Many observers contrasted this with Murray’s friend and contemporary Novak Djokovic, who was seen as being at a similar level to Murray at the start of 2007, but who stepped into the higher echelons of the game by reaching the final of the 2007 US Open and winning the 2008 Australian Open. Murray had never reached the last eight of a Grand Slam event and many said it was high time to talk about fulfilment rather than potential.

Looking back now, it can be seen that Murray has made a similar leap this summer to Djokovic’s last year. It started at Wimbledon where he reached his first Grand Slam quarter-final. Just as importantly for his future he came back from two sets down to beat Richard Gasquet in the fourth round, thus giving him an indication of what was possible if he retained his self-belief during adversity. That game also seemed a watershed in the terms of his relationship with the SW19 crowd who, until then and perhaps because of some perceived anti-English comments previously, had not cheered Murray to the same degree as they had Tim Henman.

Rather than resting on his laurels after this Murray went on to produce a great hard court season. In the Toronto Masters he beat Djokovic on the way to the semi-finals. In the Cincinnati Masters he beat Djokovic again but this time in the final as he won comfortably his biggest career victory to date. Hopping over a poor Olympics campaign (everybody is entitled to one poor tournament) Murray then became the first Brit in over a decade to reach a Grand Slam final. Focussing on the Nadal match would be understandable, given that he outplayed the World number 1, but there were also encouraging signs elsewhere. Murray looked notably fitter than his opponent in victories over Jurgen Melzer and Stanislas Wawrinka (the former another comeback from two sets to love down) and also beat the talented Juan Martin del Potro. That achievement should not be underestimated – the Argentine not only has a big serve and a powerful forehand but came onto the match on a 23 game winning streak.

Further reason for optimism is that Murray now seems to be an all-round player. As a teenager his natural talent was obvious but it was equally easy to spot his weaknesses. The most damaging of these was a fitness level below other top professionals which was rectified by hard work. Following the US Open run (as well as the matches against Wawrinka and Melzer there was little sign of Murray missing anything in this department against Nadal, generally regarded as the fittest tennis player in history) this criticism can now definitively be written off. A couple of years ago Murray also lacked physical strength but over the last twelve months he has worked hard in this area and, although the circumference of his biceps is never likely to match Nadal’s, he can now hold his own against most opponents in this department. The last area that Murray has worked on in his mental approach. Often seen as stroppy and temperamental, Murray has been able to curb that side of his character recently, and possibly with it, the tendency to drop off mentally at crucial points during the game.

All of this is not to say that Murray must not continue the hard work. His powerful serve, for instance, is erratic; his fabulous performance against Nadal unsurprisingly coincided with him getting an unusually large percentage of first serves in. This percentage dropped significantly in the final with predictable consequences. Murray, however, knows this himself and straight after the US Open final, the only topic he mentioned more than the continued need for hard training was praise for Federer.

This rounded all-round game should give Murray a chance in all Grand Slam events, although the French Open would seem the least likely avenue for success. Murray spent some crucial teenage years at the Sánchez-Casal Academy in Barcelona so he is no stranger to clay, but the continued excellence of Nadal on this surface and the tough competition provided by continental clay-court specialists means that a quarter final appearance is as much as can reasonably be expected in Roland Garros in the immediate future.

Things are different, though, in the three other Grand Slam events where Murray has come out himself since the US Open final and said that he feels he has a chance of winning any of the three. His performances on hard courts this year provide ample evidence to support that assumption as far as the Australian and US Open are concerned whilst, with extra experience and the continued backing of the crowd, it is a distinct possibility that he can build on his Wimbledon quarter final finish this year.

Murray himself feels that his best chance is at the US Open, a tournament he has described as his favourite since his junior days. Lawrence Donegan in his GU blogs seemed to find it amusing that a young man from the small town of Dunblane in Central Scotland feels at home in New York, but perhaps it is exactly the contrast with his own background that Murray finds exciting. New York seems to provide a form of mental rush for Murray. At the same time the tournament is more relaxed than the palace of pomp and pageantry that is Wimbledon, an atmosphere which meant that Murray, starting out as a young Scot, didn’t feel totally relaxed there despite it being ostensibly his “home tournament”.

As an aside, Murray’s mother, Judy, explained recently to BBC Sport that when Murray feels comfortable with his surroundings it brings out his best form, which also explains why it is realistic to expect him to produce his best performances in the US Open. It also provides an explanation as to why his current coaching set-up, lead to Miles Maclagan, a mediocre former player little known outside of Scotland, has resulted in his career’s best form. Murray has come under fire in certain sections in the media for not having a big name coach but the results he has produced this summer prove that he has chosen his back-up team well and that lesser lights can also lead to top results if the personal chemistry is right.

In the comparison with his direct rivals there are also opportunities for Murray. Federer, despite re-discovering his all-round excellence in the closing stages of the US Open, is not the player he was a couple of years ago and, even if he manages to fully resurrect his game, he has surely little more than two years left at the top. Nadal, on the other hand, is still young at 22 but is, in my view, currently around his peak. The Majorcan matured early physically and already has considerable experience, meaning that he has less scope for developing his game than Murray has for his. Further, Nadal puts an immense amount of physical and mental energy into each point of every tennis match – contrast his slightly jerky hitting and general intensity to the languid, fluid and cerebral style of Federer. Problems directly or indirectly associated with physical and/or mental “burn-out” are therefore a real possibility and I therefore expect Nadal to be able to spend less time at the top than the Swiss maestro.

This all bodes well for Murray but there are still plenty of obstacles. Djokovic, his contemporary, already has a Grand Slam win to his name. Other young players (for example Del Potro) are likely to push hard for titles as Federer fade away. However, the most promising sign for Murray this summer is that with the form he has shown he seems to have conquered his most difficult opponent, a person he has played more than any other. That person: himself.

5 comments:

Ebren said...

I should point out this was far more timely than it seems - I have been away from the internet for a week or so.

bluedaddy said...

That's just a really nice bit of writing Allout. Restrained, balanced, informative.

Men's tennis has the possibility of two or three all time great years, ones to rival any other era. And therefore it is all the more astonishing that one of those pushing for glory is Scottish/British, given the puny efforts of British tennis pre-Henman.

I like Murray a lot.

alloutagain said...

Ebren

No problem.

BD

Thanks. The LTA are understandably keen to claim Murray as their own and his personality certainly shows some typical Scottish traits - passion but at the point where a year or two ago you are never quite sure whether it will prove positive or he will get down on himself and a hint of a chip on his shoulder. Being Scottish I'm allowed to write things that English people aren't -).

Murray's biography is such though that it cannot be said that he is a product of the system - he was pushed by his family and himself when he was young, he went to Spain as a teenager and even when the powers that be suplied him with a top level coach Murray soon got rid of him.

So yes, let's enjoy the fact that a Scottish/British tennis player is doing well but it doesn't necessarily follow that the coaching system is working and there will be plenty more coming up through the ranks (not saying that you are BTW just trying to put Murray's success in a British context).

bluedaddy said...

Both my parents are Scottish allout, so I also reserve the right to be chippily passionate. In fact one of the things I like about Murray is that he clearly loves his sport, if not some of the guff that accompanies being a top sportsman. In his match versus Fabrice Santoro at Wimbledon you could tell he was having a great time playing against a craftsman. It was a lovely game to watch.

I think the bigwigs at the FA and the LTA have all read the same out-of-date coaching manual. All the money in the world, and not an ounce of good sense amongst the lot of them.

Mouth of the Mersey said...

Murray vs Gasquet, del Potro and Nadal were three of the most exciting matches I've seen in years. Murray's vulnerability is very exciting and his shot-making just extraordinary.

Between the grace of Federer, much as we like it and the bullishness of Nadal, Murray treads a very attractive middle path.

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