Saturday, July 2, 2011

Murray and the lack of a champion's mind

Very often we hear of a moment – a single point, a single tackle, or a single ball – that turned a sporting contest on its head: the turning point, as it were. Invariably these are rather tenuous for a tennis match is played over three or five sets, a football match over ninety minutes and test match cricket over five days. Yet, on some occasions the turning point is palpably clear, a moment when the tide obviously turned, a moment that wrecked seemingly irrevocable damage on one of the competitors.

Yesterday, Andy Murray dazzled for a set and three games, serving with pace and precision and whipping his forehands with audacious venom and spin. One would have been forgiven for thinking that he may finally step out of the shadow of Fred Perry whose name has hung over every British player that has taken the court since his retirement. But at 2-1 in the second set of his semi-final, with Rafael Nadal serving at 15-30, Murray missed a sitter of a forehand, sending it long when it would have been easier to find a winner. With that the damage had been done. From that point, Nadal won seven games in a row, a stretch that saw him win the second set and take an early break in the third; a stretch from which Murray never recovered.

Let’s set aside Murray’s British roots for a moment – even if it perhaps has something to do with his frailties. His pure abilities as a tennis player can at times be a joy to behold, as it indeed was in the opening phases of his tie against Nadal. When playing with confidence, Murray’s coverage of the court is incomparable; he has a happy knack of finding funky angles that even the very best find difficult to counter. He can hit his double-handed backhand with depth and pace, and is equally capable of removing the left hand to play delicious slices that are often devious in their execution. His forehand is a more rugged weapon, harsher and tougher to counter when in full tilt, but vulnerable when his confidence dips. Yesterday, its vagaries were in abundant evidence. When in command, it was his chief weapon, but when his conviction waned at 2-1 in the second set, it was the forehand that let him down. In the very next game, Murray placed an easy overhead long, on break point, to hand the initiative to Nadal; a grip which the Spaniard never let slip.

Murray continued to go for broke in the games that followed – a strategy, which worked wonderfully in the first set. This, though, isn’t his natural game. He likes to dab and slice, slow the pace of the point and use his nous rather than power to outmanoeuvre opponents. For as long as it fell his way, it seemed the right way to play, but having taken the lead, the tactic ultimately proved injudicious. He needed to settle down into a rhythm, one in which he could dictate the tempo of the match, not by muscling the ball, but by forcing Nadal to create his own pace. By the time he was able to get back on board, though, the Spaniard had wrested control. Nadal had begun to unleash his groundstrokes – particularly his forehand – with outrageous portions of topspin, getting the ball to kick off the grass with biting venom. He showed the mind of a champion, one whose focus never seems to waver. Murray, on the other hand, having displayed incredible skill in the opening phases, sank deeper into a quagmire of his own doing. His tactics needed to be more exact. And even more importantly, he needed to realise that one poor forehand is hardly the end of it.

Nadal broke twice in the third set and once in the fourth, winning them 6-2, 6-4 and sealing a place in the final against Novak Djokovic. Gracious as ever he said after the match: “Andy Murray today didn't win a Grand Slam, but he's a much better player than a lot of players who have won Grand Slams in the past." Murray has two options – either to feel sorry for himself that he is playing in one of the most competitive eras of men’s tennis or to work harder, not merely on his tennis skills, but on his mind, which had it remained strong, he may well have been the first Briton since Bunny Austin in 1938 to reach a Wimbledon final.

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