Catching the Tape: At Home with Andy

Wednesday, April 25, 2012 /by

We know Andy Murray as a Scot, and primarily as a hard-court player. But he’s returning to another home of his this week on the clay courts of Barcelona. Murray spent three years, from ages 15 to 18, training and sometimes living at the Sanchez-Casal Tennis Academy outside the city. Today, through the terrible magic of YouTube, we can look back and get a four-minute glimpse of what life was like for the teen Andy during those formative days. Above is a clip from a British TV feature about Murray, done soon after he had won the U.S. Open junior title and been branded as “The Next Tim Henman.” (“The Next Tim Henman”: Is that the opposite of a humblebrag?) A few notes on what we see, and what it might say about Murray.

—Is it a bad sign that when we first see Murray, he’s trudging up the beach looking like the weight of the world is on his shoulders? To the accompaniment of plaintive piano music? His opening lines are also less than promising: “I never saw myself being a tennis player. I always wanted to be a footballer. I’m not really sure why I decided to play tennis.” But there’s something touching about the way the 18-year-old ends this soliloquy: “I hope it’s the right choice.” Yes, it was.

Footballers turned tennis players: In that, Murray is a lot like Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal. There must be something about the sport, which forces you not just to move quickly, like basketball, but to create with your feet, that goes with the modern tennis game. More so, obviously, than throwing sports like baseball and American football.

—It’s seems true to the no-nonsense Murray persona that he would live in a basic, messy dorm room rather than in something nicer off-campus. I like the clay-stained sneakers. This is how Pato Alverez, his coach at the time, described him to the Guardian last year: “He was very quiet and well-behaved. While many of the [other kids] would go wild in their spare time, Andy stayed quiet and kept to himself. His schedule was probably the most intense of anyone I have coached; he spent 25 hours a week on court. He didn’t care about free time, he just wanted to work. If Andy was not on the court, in the gym, or in class, you didn’t hear from him.”

—So we go to the court, where we get an early sighting of the Murray Moan after an error. Apparently it wasn’t common back then. “I don’t think I once saw him get angry on the court in the three years I worked with him,” Alvarez said. He’s surprised by how much he shows his frustration now and thinks the key to Murray’s success will be for someone to “get inside his head and fix this, because the calmer he stays on the court, the better he will do.”

—It’s cruel of the TV people to make Murray answer questions while he’s playing. It obviously exhausts him—“I need to stop,” he finally pleads. What’s interesting is how good he is even when he is talking, how clean his shots are. He’s looser here than when he plays now, and you see some of the natural shot-making skill that everyone recognized in him at a young age. “It was obvious,” Alvarez said, “as soon as Andy came to the academy that he had the potential to be a complete player. He had a very good serve and a very good backhand.” Murray, ever the contrarian, says in this clip that his forehand is his favorite shot. The first surface he mentions as his specialty is clay.

What’s odd is that Alvarez described junior Andy as a natural net-rusher: “His movement at the net was also good," he said. "He was not afraid to do this, which was rare. Most young players like to stay at the baseline, they feel safe there. Andy was different, he was brave and confident about coming forward from day one.”

I wonder if Alvarez watched Murray’s last match in Monte Carlo, against Tomas Berdych, in which he came in seven times compared to Berdych’s 36?

—Also cruel: Showing Murray whiff at a shot in ping-pong. His relationship with the British press was obviously off to an ominous start.

—We finish back on the beach, where the budding perfectionist compares himself unfavorably to Roger Federer and trudges out of the picture to that plaintive piano. For all of Murray's straightforward simplicity and lack of obvious charisma, he's an interesting guy. From a young age, he’s had a strong and slightly mysterious inner motivation, a Spartan mindset, and a tendency to put a ton of pressure on himself—at 18, he was already assessing his game in comparison to the world’s best player.

Maybe that’s what comes from being touted as a near-certain future No. 1. Back in 2005, Emilio Sanchez described Murray as having "privileged hands," and being in the same league as Federer: "Andy is a natural in the way that Roger Federer is a natural," Sanchez said, clearly trying to lower the public's expectations for him. "In tennis, shots are made with the arm, but the hand at the end is what gives you options to do things with the ball. With a privileged hand you have many more options because your opponent isn't sure what you are going to do."

In all my time coaching,” Alvarez said, “Andy is the most talented player I have worked with. I feel he can [win many Slams] for sure. I saw this in him from the first moment that I saw him hit a ball at the academy. All Andy needs is to have more confidence in himself.”

Yet for Murray there’s a lack of total belief—“I hope it’s the right choice”—that lingers to this day. We’ll see what a visit to his old stomping grounds does for him this week.

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