Authority Figure

Monday, October 20, 2008 /by

Andy MurrayDid the Big Three just turn into the Big Four? As Andy Murray’s win over Gilles Simon was unfolding Sunday in Madrid, as he patiently wore down the already worn down Frenchman, I found myself asking that question every few games. For most of the afternoon, I was unwilling to answer with a yes—the match seemed just a little too routine to reveal any possible trends in Murray’s future. But in the end, once I’d seen the way he handled the last few, clinching points, I had a hard time hanging on to my skepticism.

Let’s go back to the beginning. This was a match between Saturday’s giant killers. Murray had beaten No. 2 Roger Federer 7-5 in the third; Simon had followed by upsetting No. 1 Rafael Nadal 7-6 in the third. All in all, it made for one of the best days of tennis of 2008. The losses by the top two players in the world may have been predictable—once the majors are over, the champions lose just a tiny bit of their motivation, the same tiny bit that keeps them above the pack the rest of the year. But what wasn’t predictable was that they were beaten by two hungry young guys who were playing the best tennis of their careers, and who each brought an appealingly varied and soft-handed style to the final. This time it wasn’t a huge server or permanent underachiever who benefited from Nadal’s and Federer’s late-season letdowns. It was two of the most creative and classical players on tour. I’m going to take that as a positive sign in itself for men’s tennis.

The problem on Sunday was that one of those players had been on court for six hours more than the other over the course of the week. Simon came into the final having won four matches by the score of 7-6 in the third and having logged 11 hours of playing time in six days. As the Frenchman said afterward, Murray was aware of this. “I didn't move how I usually do, and Andy knew it,” Simon said. “He just wanted to make me run all the time, right, left, right, left.”

That is what Murray did, but while it’s a simple strategy to formulate, it’s still a tricky one to implement. In doing so successfully, Murray showed just how comfortable he has become this year, both in his own skin and on the baseline. All week, and especially against Simon, Murray controlled rallies by doing what to the untrained eye doesn’t seem like very much—floating slice backhand crosscourt, medium-pace topspin forehand crosscourt, floating slice down the line, medium-pace forehand down the line, then start again. What’s important, though, is not that these tactics are simple and basic; it’s that they were just enough. Murray kept his forehands just deep enough, mixed his down-the-line slices in just often enough, and changed the spin on the ball just radically enough from shot to shot. The result was that Simon, if he wanted to end the points early, had to take a risk. Murray never did, because he never forced himself to do more than was absolutely necessary.

We all know about Murray’s shot-making skills, but he’s learning, as Federer did a few years ago, that it’s a lot more likely that he’s going to win if he doesn’t have to show them off. During the clay-court season, I wrote that Murray’s drop shot had become his putaway shot, a style that simply couldn’t continue if he was going to improve. On Sunday, I don’t recall Murray attempting one drop shot until the second-set tiebreaker, when he briefly tightened up with the title on the line and went back to his panicky pre-Wimbledon self. For most of the match, he didn’t need to hit it, so he didn’t.

I also wrote this spring that Murray, as a still-maturing post-adolescent, had an authority problem. In tennis terms, that meant he could break serve, but he struggled when he was trying to hold for a set. This has also completely turned around. His new, calmer, more authoritative attitude has manifested itself most obviously in his serve. Throughout the event, Murray got ahead on his service games by dropping bombs up the middle—after losing their semifinal, Federer highlighted this as a key improvement in the Scot’s game. More important, Murray kept doing it with the set on the line against Simon. Serving at 5-4 in the first, he opened with an ace, hit two unreturnable serves, and closed with another ace.

Still, I wasn’t prepared to hand Murray next year’s Australian Open yet. As Robbie Koenig noted on the Tennis Channel, it can be difficult, if you’ve been playing with deliberate passivity, to suddenly go on the attack if necessary. And Murray’s natural tendency to let a match come to him will always leave him vulnerable to an opponent on a hot streak. If anything keeps him from permanently joining the Big Three, it will be this.

As the second set progressed, it looked like Koenig might be proven right. Simon had stopped missing, and Murray had been unable to change his game to break him again. It briefly got worse in the tiebreaker, when, as I said, Murray went back to the bad old days by drop-shotting four times and letting out an audible f-bomb. Down 4-6, double set point, Murray tried the final of his four drops and was fortunate when Simon flicked a forehand a few inches wide.

Then the New Andy reappeared, right on time and at his most impressive. At 5-6, he hit a forcing but not risky forehand approach and won the point at the net. At 6-6 he belted an extremely confident backhand down the line winner; this was a shot he hadn’t needed to hit all day, but it was there for him in the end. Finally, he finished Simon and his second Masters title off with a big first serve and a move to the net. Just when it appeared that Murray would succumb to the old weaknesses, that he’d only come so far as a player and that he had more room to improve, he showed that he’d come even farther. If he can let a match develop passively, and then take it to his opponent when the moment calls for it, I’d say he’s filled up most of that room for improvement already.

Murray didn’t agree afterward. His head determinedly level, he said he still had a lot of work to do and a lot of consistent results to show before he could put himself in the same league as Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic. He’s right on the consistent results part, but he’s being a little modest otherwise. Since the summer, Murray has shown he can hang with the Big Three on a regular basis. His wins against them are no longer flukes.

Watching him through the week and on the winner’s stand at the end, what struck me was how comfortable Murray seemed, on court and off. At the start of the year, he explained his decision to replace Brad Gilbert, who was hired by the LTA, with a group of coaches/trainers of his own choosing. It has taken awhile, but it’s clear now that that decision was both a sign of, and a step toward, his maturity as a player. He’s no longer the rebel who never got along with the LTA and screamed at his own coach. Like Nadal with Uncle Toni and Federer with Mirka and their co-entourage, Murray moved away from the celebrity coach concept in favor of having people he likes and trusts around him. Ten months later, he’s in charge of his strategy, his serve, his temper, his destiny. Murray has always had the skills and the underlying tennis DNA to win a Slam. Now he’s given himself the authority to use them.

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