Flying Coach-less

Monday, August 16, 2010 /by

Am Andy Murray may never win a major. If he doesn’t, there’s a very good chance he’ll go down as the best player not to do so. His game has its flaws and its holes—the biggest one being that he can’t close his eyes and belt his way out of trouble—and he’ll always have the big British monkey on his back. Beyond that, his at times tetchy demeanor doesn’t make him an easy player to love; his fan base presumably consists of students of the game and diehard lovers of all things pale and Anglo. But this past week in Toronto, Murray showed that for the span of six days, he can play circles around the world’s best, steal their games out of their back pockets, and leave them spinning in confusion.

In the quarters, Murray put David Nalbandian exactly where he didn’t want to be. In the semis, he gave Rafael Nadal, not normally known for indecisiveness, no good options and left the world’s best player temporarily unsure of what he does best. In the final, Murray did a little of what he usually does, by punching holes in Roger Federer’s net attack, and a little of what he usually doesn’t, by striking first and piling up more winners than his opponent.

“He was aggressive,” Federer said of Murray. “He was taking the ball early. He wasn’t giving me much, and he clutch-served at the very end when he had to, and he deserved the victory.”

Murray came in with four things going for him. He had the momentum, after his win over Nadal. He had the hunger, after what has thus far been a disappointing season. He had less outside pressure, with no coach’s tactical advice ringing in his ears. And he was rested. Federer was coming off two straight three-set night matches, while Murray had finished his semifinal the previous afternoon. All of that added up to a hot start: Murray broke Federer twice to open the match, winning 12 of the first 16 points.

Big early leads can throw you off. You’re suddenly out in front by yourself, with nobody running neck and neck with you anymore—think about sprinters and the pace-setting “rabbits” they hide themselves behind. Murray double-faulted to start the fourth game, and within a few minutes he couldn’t get the ball over the net. It didn’t take long for both of his breaks to evaporate.  Partially this was Murray coming down to earth, but it was also due to how difficult it still is to finish Roger Federer.

Serving for it at 5-4, Murray slid a nice first ball out wide into the deuce court. It looked for a split-second to be unreturnable. It was, by virtually anyone but Federer. But he was able, as he so often is, to get the barest edge of his frame on it, just enough to get it to creep over the net and land in a tricky position for his opponent. Murray wristed it inside out, but Federer was there to time a perfect backhand pass. Frustration in his face for the first time, Murray double faulted to be broken a few minutes later. The early upbeat aggressiveness was gone; the doomed hangdog look had returned. There’s been talk at various times over the years about how Federer has lost his invincible aura, that the “locker room” isn’t scared of him anymore. From the evidence this week, it’s obvious that that’s not true, or not true enough to make much of a difference. The thought of beating Federer is still as daunting and exciting and nerve-wracking as ever for these guys.

It all seemed to be going according to Federer’s Toronto blueprint. He had broken Berdych when he served for the match in the quarters, and broken Djokovic to end their semi. But against Murray, after he’d won the first point of his own service game at 5-5, Federer shot himself in the foot. He served and volleyed, and Murray drilled a return that he couldn’t handle. His momentum had been stopped in its tracks, and he was broken. Federer is constantly being told, for lack of any better advice, I suppose, to come to the net more. But that hasn’t been his game for many years. I’m not saying he should never come in or never mix it up. But he had Murray on the run at 5-5; there was no need to change a winning game at that moment, especially against one of the best returners in tennis, and a guy who loves a target. The same thing would happen at 5-5 on Federer’s serve in the second set. He began that game with two trips to the net, and two lost points, and he was eventually broken.

At the start of 2009, Murray was beating Federer with a largely defensive game. That wasn’t the case this time. Like Federer said, he came up with bombs at the end; one of them was the hardest serve Murray has ever hit, a fact that the Scot happily volunteered in his presser (though it still wasn't enough to bring a smile). Murray also got free points serving to Federer’s backhand—Federer looked fooled by the shot on a number of occasions—and he used both of his ground strokes to open up the court. Few men can create so well with their crosscourt backhands.

Afterward, Murray said that he was calmer than normal last week, and that he didn’t miss having a coach because he’d been working with one so recently; it wasn’t like he had no ideas or tactics to fall back on. But like I said after his semi, Murray has a stubborn streak, one that naturally counters authority. As with many of the pros, we’ve watched him go through various stages in his maturing process. He tried a celebrity, LTA-payrolled coach in Brad Gilbert before dumping him. Then he tried to take some control of his destiny by surrounding himself with a committee of coaches—Miles McLagan, Alex Corretja, and the various trainers and pals who play video games with him all over the world. What’s the next step? Murray says he’ll start looking for a coach after the U.S. Open, but in Toronto he may have found out a little more about what he’s capable of when he trusts himself. Because Murray can do a lot of things, but not one obvious thing, he doesn’t have an easy game to use. Last week, on his own, he used it better than he ever has when he was listening to someone else.

This win doesn’t mean Murray is the favorite for the US. Open, or even that he’s “back,” as we like to say. Every week is its own week on the tour, worthy of appreciation in its own right. So I’ll appreciate one particular shot that Murray came up with in the final. Federer hit a drop volley and closed in on the net. It didn’t look like Murray could possibly reach the ball, but he did. More than just reaching it, though, he slid his racquet under the ball, lifted it over Federer’s head, and brought it down inside the baseline, at a virtually impossible angle. You could almost see Murray, as he swung, decide to do something creative and trust his hands and his talent to pull it off. It was a unique, brilliant, artistic, unnecessary shot, one that almost no one else on earth could have made. And there’s not a coach on earth who could have told him to make it.

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