Murder Most Foul
Today’s opening match on Stadium 1 at Indian Wells featured two players who looked like they were heading in different directions. That’s not unusual, except when, as was the case today, the one spiraling downward is a Grand Slam title holder. That would be Andy Murray, who struggled yet again in the thin, dry air of the desert and flamed out against a seemingly re-energized Milos Raonic.
The final score was 4-6, 7-5, 6-3. The fact that there was not a single tiebreaker gives you a pretty good clue as to what happened: Murray couldn’t take care of his serve, which is job number one when you’re facing someone like Raonic, whose own serve is generally impregnable.
Raonic is one of the prominent ace machines in the game, but on this day he averaged less than an ace per game, and it was the ease with which he broke Murray’s serve on two occasions in the third set that spelled doom for the Wimbledon champ.
Alright, we all know that Murray has a problem with the desert; perhaps it’s his way, as a Scot, of repudiating all those clichés about the affinity of British folks for harsh, sun-baked environments. But Murray has had some good years in Indian Wells—finalist in 2009; semifinalist in 2007—and even last year’s three-set loss to Juan Martin del Potro in the quarterfinals doesn’t exactly qualify as an embarrassment.
Right now, Murray himself is probably hoping that this latest loss can be put down to some sort of desert jinx rather than a some larger problem in his game, or his approach to it.
Murray still has some breathing room before he’s judged a slacker in the court of public opinion (it’s one of the things he shares with Novak Djokovic). After all, he lost the entire fall of 2013 because of back surgery, and everyone with the possible exception of Rafael Nadal knows that the road back from a lengthy hiatus can be a long one.
But recently in New York, Murray declared that he felt comfortable, confident, and match tough. “At the Australian Open, I felt I wasn’t that far off the pace, to be honest,” Murray said after an exhibition at Madison Square Garden. “Now my body feels good and I played four matches in four days last week in Acapulco—for the first time since my surgery. I felt I recovered well, so I’m really looking forward to next week.”
That “next week” is Indian Wells, where Murray played two ragged matches (three-set wins against, respectively, Lukas Rosol and Jiri Vesely) and then a very good one against Raonic—until it really mattered.
After Murray’s win over Vesely in the third round, a reporter lauded Murray for his ability to win matches that he appeared to be losing. Murray accepted the compliment and explained, “My mom or parents or whoever watched me play when I was young, you know, always, always said I found ways to win matches even when I was losing—or looked like I was going to lose the match. So, you know, it's a good habit to have.”
Okay, it wasn’t entirely accurate for Murray to use the construction, “looked like I was going to lose. . .” Murray almost always looks like he’s going to lose, no matter what the scoreboard says.
Beyond that, today’s match made that theory look like hokum. Murray did exactly what he’s supposed to do in the first set. He took care of his serve, brushing aside a break point in the sixth game. Two games later, he broke Raonic at love and held with equal ease to take the set, 6-4.
Murray kept Raonic at arm’s length for most of the second set, and kept the pressure on through 10 games that went on serve. But after Raonic held for 6-5, Murray withered under the pressure, and the Canadian broke him at 15.
In the third set, Murray clawed his way to just his second break point of the match in the third game. He converted it when Raonic missed his first serve and then made a forehand error in the ensuing rally. It seemed that Murray had done exactly what an elite player must in order to get a win over a dangerous rival, and in this case the game’s most reliable holder of serve. Murray led, 2-1, with serve to come.
But that was when Murray’s game went south, and Raonic stepped up, playing more aggressively than at any other time in the match. He opened that fourth game with a volley winner, his 21st successful point at the net in 24 tries. Then Murray double-faulted and Raonic powdered a backhand to seize a 0-40 lead. Raonic broke when Murray mis-directed a backhand to end a rally. It was an altogether poor example of trying to consolidate a break.
Discouraging as that was for Murray fans, the worse was yet to come. Raonic, showing the fruit of his relationship with coach Ivan Ljubicic, began to attack with greater frequency and conviction. It was like the proverbial lightbulb went on over his head. Raonic held at 15, then broke Murray again for 4-2. The rest was academic, as Raonic continued to assert himself with impressive attacking tennis.
The interesting questions raised by this match are, “Just how much time does Murray need to get back into the form expected by so many, including himself?” And, “Is Raonic ready to take a big step forward?”
Let’s take the second one first. Raonic burst onto the scene in 2011 at the tender age of 20. Since then, he’s shown exemplary consistency, but he’s also been spinning his wheels at an age when most players destined for greatness continue to build on their reputations. Ljubicic is there to take Raonic to that next level, and if it was discouraging to watch Raonic play like a baseliner without the requisite consistency early in this match, his transformation into an aggressive player willing to dictate in the later stages was as impressive as it was unexpected.
As for the other question, there’s clearly no need for Murray to panic. On the other hand, Raonic isn’t the only player who’s been oppressed by the Big Four in recent years, and probably not the only one who may sense a new opportunity to bust out of his shackles. You know how these things work. People get ideas. Give them an inch, they take a mile.
Of course, it’s still early in the year. The narrative that has pale-and-freckled Murray perishing in the desert year after year is an inviting one, but I wouldn’t read too much into it.
It’s also possible that Murray misses his svengali, Ivan Lendl. Or, if he doesn’t exactly miss him, Murray may not be capable of playing his A-game without Lendl’s long shadow falling across the stadium court. There’s no question that Murray took full advantage of Lendl’s absence this week to work on his Hamlet-esque soliloquies, and that’s never a good sign. Maybe all those earnest therapists and nurturers are wrong, maybe it’s the worst idea ever to just “let Andy be Andy.”
Well, Miami is coming up. If Murray is going to get his game sorted out before the always problematic European clay-court circuit, Miami is the most likely place for him to do it (he’s played three finals there, winning twice, including last year). But Raonic, and others like him, will all be there, waiting.