From the buzzed hair, to the bland white clothes, to the way he kept his head down like a man on the lam, there seemed to be something missing about Andy Murray as he walked through his match in Montreal yesterday. He looked reduced, chastened and humbled, still, perhaps, not recovered from his two-week rollercoaster ride at Wimbledon. Not that you could really blame him if that were the case, considering that it had ended as it always ends, in soul-crushing, Empire-disappointing defeat.
And that’s how Murray played, for the brief time he was on the court: Like a man reduced. He didn’t have his serve or his forehand, which isn’t all that unusual. What was unusual was that he didn’t have his return, he didn’t have his backhand, he didn’t even have his best and most natural weapon, his speed. Murray said he “felt slow" from the start, and he looked it. His opponent, Kevin Anderson, was allowed total control of virtually every rally, and Murray, normally a master of retrieval, couldn’t get himself back into the points.
The last two seasons, Murray has suffered a spring hangover after losing the final of the Australian Open—this year he lost his openers in Indian Wells and Key Biscayne. At first glance this equally stunning defeat makes it appear that Murray has decided to add a second Slam hangover period to his annual calendar. Of course, judging from his recent Tweets, the riots in London, where he owns a house, have been on his mind—no surprise there. But another reason is just as likely: the Novak Djokovic effect.
Murray has spent 2011 watching his junior friend and rival—he and Djokovic were born two weeks apart—leave all of his old physical and mental frailties behind and make good on the early speculation that he was going to be the game’s next No. 1. Murray has heard that same speculation about himself for a decade. His coach when he was a teenager training in Spain, Pato Alvarez, has said that the first time he saw the Scot hit a tennis ball he believed that he was destined to be the best tennis player in the world.
The most famous change that Djokovic has made during his rise has been his switch to a gluten-free diet. The Serb is leaner and lighter, and has, by all appearances, solved the allergy and stamina problems that hindered him in the past. It’s hardly surprising that this summer Murray himself has adopted a new diet of his own. Where he used to carbo-load and stuff himself with 6,000 calories a day—including 50 pieces of sushi after matches (it sounds like he was keeping one of his favorite restaurants, Nobu, in business all by himself)—Murray has now cut out bagels and other carbs, and has even resorted to gluten-free pasta, a food I didn't know existed before Djokovic talked about it this year. Murray, as he has in the past, also went through an intensive period of training in Miami in preparation for the hard-court season.
So far it’s won him four games, against Kevin Anderson, a player ranked 35th and one whom he demolished in Australia last year. But in a way, it might have been expected. A lot of tennis players have had the same seemingly paradoxical experience: You spend a week at a camp hitting thousands of balls and running from morning to night, and then you come out and play your first match and you feel like you’re spinning your wheels in mud and you can barely get the ball over the net. Which is a good way to describe how Murray looked yesterday.
Even at his best, though, he might have struggled. Anderson, quietly and unobtrusively—is there a less flashy personality on the men's tour?—has been having his best year, at age 25. He reached a career-high ranking (33) in April and seems destined to pass that mark this summer. While he’s not likely to crack the Top 10, and he won't be favored in his next match, which might be against Stan Wawrinka, what’s interesting to me about Anderson is that he could be the prototype for the next great tennis player. He’s listed at 6-foot-8 (though he doesn’t appear to be quite that tall to me), but he’s a baseliner who can attack. Anderson said that he was determined to move forward against Murray, and it worked well on the slightly-slicker-than-normal court in Montreal. I can see faster courts making a comeback in the near future, and a player with Anderson’s size and serve and forehand running roughshod over them. The question may be: Can there ever be a player 6-foot-6 or up who possesses the speed of someone four inches shorter? The downside, for me at least, of Anderson’s success is that every time I see him win a match, I think, for a second, “OK, we’ve got an American doing well…” Oh right, he’s from South Africa.
Anderson may seem like a late-bloomer at 25, but he’s only a year older than Murray. I don’t think this loss, as ugly and total as it was, means much in itself, and if he has a good run in Cincinnati you won’t hear about it again, just as Murray’s spring disasters were old news once he got it together at the French Open. For now, you have to applaud Murray for continuing to make changes and trying to find different ways to get better, at least off the court. At the same time, though, while I’ve always believed that Murray had a better than 50-50 shot at winning a major at some point in his career, I’ve started to wonder whether it’s in the cards for him. Just as one Slam tormentor—Federer—is fading, another—Djokovic—has stepped up to take his place. What’s most troubling is Murray’s age: The last man to win his first major at 24 or older was Gaston Gaudio back in 2004, and that was the fluke to end all flukes.
Then again, as of last year, I had begun to wonder whether Djokovic would ever live up to the early No. 1 talk, or whether he would be forever be mired in his own self-defeating frustrations and uncertainties against Federer and Nadal. Now Djokovic is not only No. 1, he has other players trying out his methods—the School of Djokovic is open. Murray says that with his new diet he’s been recovering from matches much more quickly. Let’s hope that’s true of this one. If you’re going to trade Nobu for gluten-free pasta, you better get something out of it in the end.