The Outlier

by: Peter Bodo | January 13, 2011

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Q: What chance is there that Andy Murray will break through and win his first Grand Slam title in Melbourne, after having been a finalist last year?

A: Let's start with this: In a news report a few days ago, Andy Murray addressed his coaching situation, which has been unsettled for some months now. Murray revealed that he had signed Alex Corretja, the talented clay- and hard-court expert (and former two-time French Open finalist), to a six-month contract due to expire halfway through the 2011 season.

This theoretically put to rest some of the controversy and mystery that has trailed Murray since he abruptly parted ways with his former coach, Miles Maclagan, last July. And it may also lead to some weeping and gnashing of teeth. Why would a guy who's been No. 2 but has never won a Grand Slam singles title hire a guy who's also been No. 2 and never won a Grand Slam singles title?

This is a classic Andy Murray move, in that the one thing you can say about it is that Murray clearly isn't a guy who panics, nor does what the conventional wisdom might dictate. Perhaps Murray was "going Federer," hoping that since Federer seemed to chug along nicely with an array of unusual suspects, all of whom were more accurately described as advisers than Ion Tiriac-like svengalis, Murray could go that route too. It's as good a theory as any.

Murray declared Corretja his provisional coach, and this formal six-month deal is a vote of confidence. Sort of. Or maybe Murray just wanted to get everyone off his back, which is a difficult thing for a British hope to do in just about any major sport, given the robust attention world-class Brits command in their domestic and still highly competitive press.

Here's what Murray said a few days ago, re. his coaching situation: "I think everyone has probably taken that (coaching issue) and gone a wee bit overboard. I've been working with Alex for four years now. I spend 15, 20 weeks with him most years, which is quite a lot of time. And now I'm working a lot with one of my friends [Dani Vallverdu]...he played Davis Cup for Venezuela, and he knows my game very well. I grew up with him...I'm happy with the way it's set up right now but if something comes up that I think might work or help me, then I'll definitely look into it."

I suppose the wisdom accrued by Vallverdu in his 12-rubber history in Davis Cup (he's 2-6 in singles, 3-1 in doubles) will now be imparted to Andy Murray, whose hunt to become the first male British Grand Slam singles champion since Fred Perry in the 1930s has transfixed the empire. But there's no point being snide about this, because Murray's great weakness is also his great strength—he marches to the beat of his own drummer. He's the outlier. You can see it in his game, you can see it in his actions and attitudes. Don't you love the way he reassures us that if something new comes up that might help him, he'll "definitely look into it"?

This don't sweat the small stuff...or even the big stuff attitude may be a big asset to Murray as he returns to the scene of his most recent and perhaps closest call with greatness—the Australian Open, where he was runner-up to Roger Federer last year. Those who recall how ragged Murray's game looked in that final, and witnessed how crushed he looked by the loss, may agree that Murray's apparent indifference to searching out a coach who can somehow take him to the vaunted "next level" suggests that in some important ways he has moved on from that disappointment. In his own mind, Murray already is at that next level. And according to the head-to-head stats, he is.

Managing his disappointment and frustration is an important assignment that Murray has managed better than many Grand Slam also-rans and contenders, because the naked reality is that Murray has three huge impediments lying between himself and a major title at every big event: Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. He's beaten all of them, but has a losing record against two of the three (Nadal and Djokovic). So do the math on his chances. Throw in the difficulties Murray has had keeping his clever, artful if not necessarily eye-catching game in order for the entire two weeks of a Slam, and you see what Murray is up against. Give him credit for being a bigger factor, tournament after tournament, than anyone in the Top 10 excepting that triumvirate mentioned above.

The question with Murray isn't so much, "Can he win a major?" as "How long can he tread water and keep his confidence and determination intact until his opportunity opens up?"

Recent history isn't very helpful in evaluating Murray's chances; he played only in the mixed doubles Hopman Cup exhibition this year. He mostly held his place through the 2010 ATP season, although he laid back-to-back pastings on Roger Federer in Masters 1000 events in Canada and Shanghai. But assessments of form are less helpful with Murray than perhaps any other player, because it doesn't work that way with an outlier.

After all, this is a guy who would be a national hero were he to win Wimbledon, where he's already amassed a promising record, but he goes and hires a coach who was horrible on grass. Then there's that game: Watching Murray play may convince you that he "developed" his game on some cracked hard court surrounded by cyclone fencing in some Scottish public park, yet his prep years were spent in sunny Spain. How he managed to avoid incorporating some signature elements of high-level technical and strategic training in a nation that produced the likes of David Ferrer, Fernando Verdasco, Carlos Moya and even Corretja is beyond me, but perhaps he's lucky that his game was so hardy and self-determining. Does the world really need a Scotsman in the "Spanish Armada?"

Djokovic's resurgence in the latter half of 2010 poses potential problems for Murray's title hopes, though not insurmountable ones. He's a respectable 3-4 against Djokovic. Nadal is definitely a problem; he leads Murray, 4-9. Murray's positive 8-6 mark against Federer is a glowing testament to his ability, but note that two of Federer's six wins were in Grand Slam finals—the only two major championship matches Murray has played. And Murray might very well have to beat two of the top three, back-to-back if he's to win Down Under. If he can get a little help with his rivals—say, a Tomas Berdych or Robin Soderling—his chances improve.

If you're looking for clarity, trends, bankable tendencies and a clear plan of action, don't take up Murray's case. It's a muddle, but at times so is Murray's game, which can have a disorienting effect on his opponents. And it doesn't imply that he can't coil up and strike to win that first major in about three weeks' time. It just means that you can't count on Murray doing it.

The important thing for players like Murray—and Djokovic is their poster child, despite having won a major—is to stay in the hunt. To watch and wait, without losing confidence, falling into a panic, trying something stupid, like a game makeover, or growing disenchanted. Murray seems to do this pretty well. He's independent as well as open-minded. (Remember, if something interesting comes up, he's promised to "look into it"!) Increasingly, he appears to bide his own counsel (I don't know that Vallverdu was on anyone's short list as a coach, although rumor has it that he turned down Robin Soderling. Just kidding!), and he seems more interested, as his coaching decisions demonstrate, in existing in a personal comfort zone than finding a magic bullet that would enable him to win a major.

Murray is a realist, which is always a great starting point for someone hoping to take the Grand Slam journey in the age of Federer and Nadal. The odds that he'll get there within the next month are not as strong as they've been at other times in the past, but to an outlier that means nothing.

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