From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.33 :: NO.35 :: Sep. 02, 2010
For Murray, taking the ball on the rise with the backhand has never been a problem because he can do nearly everything with that stroke.
Andy Murray might not know it yet, but, in agreeing to pose for Vogue, he has committed an act of serious import — an act that affects directly the US Open. Anna Wintour, the British-born editor-in-chief of the American fashion magazine, has an eye for winners: her relationship with Roger Federer reduced tabloid writers to incontinence, one conjecturing that Federer reserved his best tennis for Wintour's viewing, another crowing that Wintour's crush on Federer was just the right sort — deliciously unhealthy.
Now, in commissioning the photo-shoot for Vogue's September issue, Wintour has decreed that Murray will succeed Federer as the King of Queens. And, in so doing, he will end The Drought, Britain's wait for a male Grand Slam champion since 1936, when Fred Perry won the U. S. Open (then, the U. S. National Championship).
Elsewhere, other signs have emerged, signs less legitimate than a Wintour endorsement, but signs nonetheless. Murray outplayed Rafael Nadal and Federer in Toronto to defend his Rogers Cup title.
Federer and Nadal have, between them, won 20 of the last 22 Grand Slams. You don't beat those two back-to-back, in straight sets, without a favourable alignment of the stars. But seriously, is it Murray's time?
After two disheartening defeats in finals, will the 23-year-old Scotsman finally win a major? Earlier this year at Wimbledon, Martina Navratilova asked him what he needed to do to “get over the hump”.
Rogers Cup champion Andy Murray with the runner-up Roger Federer. Murray beat Nadal as well enroute to the final.
Murray insisted that his best game would do — he had to find a way, he said, of sustaining his highest level of play in a final.
It is in this context that the victories over Nadal and Federer appear significant. One, his best was indeed enough. Two, it was his first win over Federer in a final — important from a psychological standpoint.
But things are not always as they appear. For one thing, Murray is yet to master Federer in a best-of-five joust. And Grand Slams are nothing like lesser tournaments. Winning seven matches, each possibly contested over five sets, demands a lot of things, luck not the least of them.
There have been two principal criticisms of Murray in this regard: his passive, drawn-out style, made necessary by the lack of an obvious weapon, takes too much out of him; his recovery between matches isn't the best, which combined with his style of play, makes the cumulative effort of winning a Grand Slam even more difficult.
There is some truth to both criticisms. Certainly, an exploration of each is required before you consider the mental effort needed for a breakthrough.
Murray's game, for want of simple classification, is lumped under Counter-puncher. He has no problem with it — he even said he likes the tag — but it does a disservice to one of the most fascinating styles of play in world tennis today.
It's a difficult style to pin down — it's not so much formless as it is shape-shifting. Murray has always had considerable physical skill. Even among elite athletes, who have freakish kinaesthetic ability, he stands out. He plays excellent table-tennis left-handed and is well nigh unbeatable at foot-tennis.
Both have a bearing on his game: the left hand has great influence on the two-handed backhand, Murray's best stroke, while his movement, which is exceptionally adroit for someone 6ft 3in tall, seems to have gained — much like John McEnroe's and Nadal's — from an early immersion in football.
The origins of Murray's game can be traced to his time at the Sanchez-Casal academy in Barcelona. “When you're practicing against guys who are really consistent, you have to find three or four ways to win points,” he said. Thus was formed Murray's deceptive, soft-handed game, grounded in ball-retrieval and consistency, but more intuitive and creative than the average baseline metronome.
Even when he's playing curmudgeonly, hard-nosed tennis, rays of original brilliance — a touch return, bunted up the line, a shallow-angled drop volley hit in response to a heavily sliced backhand — light up the court.
It's also evident in how he constructs points, expertly working court-space to pick apart an opponent.
Yet for all his feel and intelligence, Murray, like Martina Hingis, seemed to have to labour to win points. He also did puzzling little things — standing further behind the baseline, for instance — that compounded this problem.
But, over the last two and a half years, Murray has worked to overcome these troubles. He has added lean muscle that has increased the weight of his strokes — his strokes retain their curious time signature, their life-cycle unspooling in slow motion as it were, but he's able to hit deeper and harder with lesser effort. Taking the ball on the rise with the backhand has never been a problem because he can do nearly everything with that stroke.
The forehand is another matter, for his natural point of contact is later than common. Still he's better able to force the pace these days. He has also enhanced his net play, not so much the actual volleying at which he has always been adept, but the choosing of the moment to approach. The second serve remains a liability, but the first delivery has stiffened.
In all, he's become better at transitioning from defence to offence, which together with his improved physical conditioning, has helped him challenge strongly at Slams.
Federer and Nadal are convinced that he has the game to win a Grand Slam. But does he, the mentality? After his defeat to Marin Cilic in last year's US Open, Patrick McEnroe suggested he didn't. “In the last two sets he just went away mentally. He has proved everything in other tournaments, but he's yet to prove it on this Grand Slam stage and this kind of poses really more questions than answers,” said McEnroe.
It's a hard thing to assess. No one knows if he can win a major until he actually does. The mystery of that final step is impenetrable. Ivan Lendl, celebrated for his formidable mental strength, lost four finals before he finally won a Grand Slam title; Andre Agassi, who went on to win a Career Grand Slam, suffered defeats in his first three finals before breaking through. This much is definite: Murray is made of stern stuff. Anyone that deals regularly with the British press can't not handle pressure. Starved of success on the world stage, the British press seems to over-indulge in compensation.
England mightn't have looked remotely like winning the football World Cup since 1966, but you wouldn't know it in the lead-up to the premier tournament; but after another embarrassing exit ‘This is Our Time' becomes ‘ No-hopers from the Start'.
Murray is followed by a group of writers, whose beat isn't tennis but Murray himself. Before each Grand Slam, the narrative is bleakly familiar. “I obviously get asked about it a lot in the build-up to all of the Slams,” said Murray. “But, I mean, it's so irrelevant to the way I play or approach my matches. You know when I'm on the court, it's the last thing I'm thinking about. I'm not thinking how many years it's been since a Brit won a Grand Slam. You know, I'm just thinking about how I'm going to win the match, how I'm going to win the next point.”
Everything appears in order — to the British fan at least — for Murray's coronation as a Grand Slam champion. Murray has always felt at home in New York, a city he loves so much he takes a bus to Flushing Meadows before the tournament starts (Federer reportedly takes a limousine). The fast surface accentuates the strengths of his game, which from the evidence of his preparatory tournaments is in order (the defeat to Mardy Fish in Cincinnati seems at least in part strategic).
Without a coach, he reckons he feels freer — he certainly seems to be enjoying working things out for himself. And then there's Vogue and Wintour. If nothing else, Wintour has a feel for the zeitgeist; it's as good an indicator as any of how a Grand Slam will turn out.
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