Getting Out of His Own Way

Tuesday, May 31, 2011 /by

Am PARIS—The kids were jammed up front, screaming their heads off. Their heroes hurried in together, down the steps, past the flashing lights, and out into the faux lounge that had been constructed at the front of the room. The place: Something called the Interactive Center at Roland Garros. The time: The day before the tournament started. The event: A meet and greet/media access hour/autograph session set up by Adidas for a few lucky young fans and grizzled old journalists. The heroes: Adidas endorsees Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gilles Simon, and, bringing up the rear on the way in, Andy Murray.

Half an hour later, after they’d chatted with some nervous fans and answered a dozen questions about Novak Djokovic’s winning streak from reporters, the heroes sat side by side and scribbled their names on whatever a passing child happened to place in front of them. Tsonga plastered his best professional smile across his face. Simon chatted amiably. Murray, who didn’t understand much of what the local kids were saying, somehow managed to twist his lips upward at the ends into a semblance of a smile. His face looked like it might break with the effort. Was it a smile? Close enough. Phoniness doesn’t come easily to Andy Murray.

It doesn’t come easily for him on a tennis court, either. The fact that the man is currently the 4th-best tennis player in the world should make us all question anyone who touts the value of body language, positive thinking, and happiness in general. Hobbling, breathing heavily, walking with his head tilted back and a curse seemingly about to form on his lips at any time, Murray often looks like he’s on his last legs by the third game of a match. He spent much of his fourth-rounder against Viktor Troicki in this state, and worse. He cracked his racquet and was warned. He banged his frame on his ankles, neither of which can stand much banging. He muttered “terrible shot” over and over to describe his . . . well, his terrible shots. He barked something in a mock American accent. He stated that he was “so angry.” Then he really got sarcastic. After one bad miss, Murray muttered, “great atmosphere out here.” After a forehand caught the tape, he said darkly, “Way to go for it.” All tennis players know the torture of not living up to your expectations, but we don’t all know it as acutely as Andy Murray does.

Murray is a conflicted competitor by nature. He’s also a counter-puncher by nature —his autobiography is called Hitting Back—which means he needs something to fight. Whereas fellow counterpuncher Jimmy Connors did his best to work up a good lather of hate for his opponents, Murray is more like John McEnroe—he fights himself, and his expectations of himself. He also seems to find his energy in pessimism, which has its drawbacks. It can lead to long periods where he appears to be bent on sabotaging his own chances.

Yesterday Murray was more conflicted than normal when he started. Nursing a sprained right ankle and worried about rolling over it again, he came out looking as if he wasn’t sure how much effort he wanted to expend or how much wear he wanted to put on that ankle so close to the Holy British Grail of Wimbledon. He had trouble pushing up for his serve and sliding wide to his forehand side. So Murray tried to keep the points short by swinging for the fences. It worked; he kept the points nice and short. The problem was, he lost nearly all of them. He was down 0-5 in a hurry, before he decided that he might as well play some tennis while he was out there.

Murray kept swinging for the fences, and he started to find them. But nothing is ever that straightforward for him. The set ended on a distinctly Murray-esque moment. He played red-line tennis to bring himself all the back to 4-5. He earned a break point. He got a weak second serve. He set up for a down the line forehand, the type of shot he’d been smacking for winners. He swung out. And . . . he shanked it past the doubles alley. Murray turned to his team in the stands and put his hand to his face, as if all was lost. A few points later he stared back at them again as he bashed his racquet on the court. His anger was out of proportion to the moment—it was only the first set, after all; there were at least two more to go. Murray played the last points of the set as if were seeing ghosts. (Sometimes a little self-directed phoniness, a little pretend optimism, can go a long way to clearing them away.)

If you’ve read any of my writing about Murray over the last five or six years, you know what I think his biggest problem is: Lack of a killer forehand. He can’t set up points his way and be sure of winning them, the way Federer and Nadal and Djokovic can, so he relies on nicking and cutting, slicing and dropping and defending you to death (shades of McEnroe again). When Murray finally took control of the match, deep in the fifth set, he did it by digging out balls and hitting finely gauged drop shots, rather than going on the attack.

I’ve noticed another issue this year: Murray’s version of a putaway weapon used to be his down the line backhand, but he hasn’t been hitting it as well and he rarely tried it yesterday. Maybe it was nerves, because he did bring the shot out when he needed it, when Troicki was serving for the match at 5-4 in the fifth set. Murray chose that moment to caress one beautifully up the line.

Murray can makes these types of shots, shots no one else can make so effortlessly, once he gets out of his own way, once the ghosts have cleared. Yesterday, he reminded me of another player who has recently made his own ghosts and demons vanish: Novak Djokovic. A year ago it was the Serb who was quick to doubt himself, quick to jump on the emotional roller-coaster, quick to lapse into pessimistic frustration. Djokovic’s talent is different from Murray’s, less diverse but ultimately greater, and easier to handle psychologically—he does have putaway options, which makes his tactics much simpler.

Can Murray ever find the peace that Djokovic has found over these last 40-odd matches? It’s tough to imagine, but a year ago no one imagined that Djokovic would be doing what he’s doing right now. Murray has a Grand Slam game, too, but he takes the path of most resistance to get to it. Look at what it took for him to get through this fourth round. After going down two sets and going berserk, Murray came all the way back to even it. Then, playing passively, he went down a break in the fifth. Given a reprieve by his opponent, he reached triple match point on his serve. He lost one of those points. He lost another. On the third, Murray backed up and ceded the court. When Troicki finally took the hint and came forward, Murray hit a backhand crosscourt pass from 10 feet behind the baseline that landed smack on the opposite sideline for an outrageous winner. Murray made it as difficult as possible, but he made it. You have to admire him for sticking the match out, when he had good reasons—bad ankle, upcoming Wimbledon, general sanity—to bail on it. He said afterward that the chance to play Juan Ignacio Chela, a man he should beat, in the quarters spurred him on.

Watching Murray bang his sprained ankle yesterday on his tortured, roundabout, perversely entertaining way to victory, I kept thinking: It’s OK to be a counterpuncher, as long as you're not punching yourself.

Before commenting, please read our Posting Guidelines.

Subscribe to Tennis Magazine - Just $10 per year
Top Ranked Players
More Rankings