Same As They Ever Were

Wednesday, August 07, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Part of me wondered, as I began watching his first match in a month today in Montreal, whether Andy Murray would be at all changed by winning Wimbledon. Would Moaning Muzz be replaced by a sunnier new self? Would accomplishing the goal of a lifetime make him a more peaceful man on court?

Twenty seconds in and I had my answer: Of course not. Murray did look different than he had in London: A baseball hat made his head appear smaller. But everything else was pretty much as we remembered. The angry dialogues with an invisible person. The annoyed bark of “Challenge!” at the chair umpire after a forehand of his had clearly landed wide. The cry of “Make one, Ahn-dee!’ after yet another backhand found its way into the net. The extended, and quite possibly expletive-oriented, soliloquy in the direction of his player box. Hey, misery helped take Murray to a Wimbledon title. Why leave a winning formula behind?

And it worked for him again on Wednesday. Murray has often struggled early in the summer hard-court season; last year he withdrew from his second match in Toronto, and two years ago he was run out of Montreal in a hurry by Kevin Anderson. So even though his 6-4, 7-6(2) win over 36th-ranked Marcel Granollers was a scratchy one—Murray made 46 errors, double faulted six times, and had to save a set point at 3-5 in the second—this counts as a good win. Murray arrived in Montreal earlier than normal and says that he doesn’t want to overlook the lead-up events to the U.S. Open this year. The majors are still the priority, he says, but there’s a longer-term goal in sight now: The No. 1 ranking.

“I was nervous beforehand—that was a good sign,” Murray said after the match. “It was tricky. It’s extremely windy here and the balls are quick, so it felt like it was flying around. I didn’t feel that I had my timing and got pushed behind the baseline.” 

Murray was helped by some nervous tennis from Granollers when he had the lead in the second. I had also wondered before the match whether Murray’s 13-month run of excellent play—Wimbledon final, Olympic gold, U.S. Open title, Aussie Open final, Wimbledon title—would begin to become a factor in his opponents' minds. Has he begun to benefit from the champion’s aura that has helped Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal so often over the years? Granollers certainly tightened up, but I think that was as much about him as it was about Murray’s heightened status.

Either way, Murray will have to improve in his next match, which will be against the bigger-hitting Ernests Gulbis. Murray is 5-0 in their head to head, but the last time they played, in Cincinnati in 2010, Gulbis extended him to a third-set tiebreaker. And we know Ernie is not a great respecter of titles, or rankings, or the Big 4, or...just about anything, really.

*****

“Rafa!”

“It’s Rafa time!”

“Rafa’s on my TV screen!”

Any time Rafael Nadal returns from some time off, comment sections and Twitter feeds light up with those words. It’s tennis fandom at its most infectious, and enough to remind you that the sport, even if it’s ignored by most media, has a devoted and passionate following. We’ve talked a lot recently about how much the game will miss Roger Federer, and the same will be true for Nadal when he goes. They’ve been great players, obviously, but not all great players have created the kind of fan energy and loyalty that they have.

Next, of course, came the comments on the kit that Rafa was debuting. Today he was in a yellow shirt and bandana. From what I could tell, I was alone in liking the color. (But I also liked the radioactive yellow dress that Sloane Stephens wore at the French Open.) Of greater long-term interest, however, was what Nadal wasn’t wearing: Tape on his leg. Rafa is also playing doubles in Montreal, so he must feel like the need to get as many hard-court matches as he can outweighs the chance of aggravating his knees as he prepares for the U.S. Open. 

He didn’t have to worry about aggravating much today. Nadal, who had lost his first match in Montreal two years ago to Ivan Dodig, cruised past Jesse Levine 6-2, 6-0. The only moment of tension, if you can call it that, came early. The first two games took nearly 20 minutes; less than an hour later, the match was over. Nadal played within himself and well enough; he finished with 14 winners and 16 errors. But it was Levine’s poor play that accounted for the lopsided score. He was physically overmatched and never seemed to know what he wanted to do out there. The Canadian, who was given a wild card into the event, hit just seven winners and committed 32 errors. 

Whatever Nadal's form, it was, as his fans said, good to see him back on the court and the TV screen. After watching so many players lope and mope through their matches, it’s always a pleasure to see Nadal’s naturally relentless drive on display. Tomorrow, like Murray, he’ll need more of it. Rafa faces Jerzy Janowicz in a much-anticipated first meeting. A tall man with a power game, a blistering serve, and a two-handed backhand, Janowicz fits the profile of your standard Nadal nemesis. Together, the two of them should give us the most explosive and significant match of the summer so far.

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