Question: What’s the toughest assignment you can give a professional tennis player from the United Kingdom?
You might be right if you rolled your eyes and muttered, “winning Wimbledon.” On the other hand, champions including Pete Sampras have said that the only thing more difficult than winning a major is defending it.
Now, when you factor in the specifics relating to Andy Murray’s accomplishment in SW19 last year—and what he faces in hopes of duplicating it—you might decide that maybe you didn’t snap off the right answer after all.
This year, the balance between blind hope on one side and callous expectation on the other is more evenly struck. Murray won’t be able to surf the emotions of a kingdom dying to slack a thirst built up over 77 years of frustration this time around. And the props that will accrue to a man who might beat Murray are tenfold what they were 12 months ago. The Scot certainly will have a big target on his back next week.
The obvious answer to that question is “yes,” but how Murray will react to the stress of his situation is difficult to predict. For in his thoughts and acts, just as in his game, Murray is a rare fellow—an individualist who’s never embraced the conventions that appear to guide the lives and careers of many of his peers.
The most recent example of this was Murray’s decision to hire Amelie Mauresmo as his trial coach for this grass-court season. Forget the fact that Mauresmo is a woman, and that she has only modest coaching experience. The important details are that she struggled with pressure throughout her career, she won the first of her two Grand Slam singles titles at an even later age than Murray did (she was almost 27, Murray was 25), and that she turned in some of her most disappointing performances at her home Slam, the French Open. Even in her career year of 2006, when she won the Australian Open and Wimbledon and reached the U.S. Open semis, she stumbled out of Roland Garros in the fourth round—and never made it that far in Paris again.
So if Murray wanted to hire someone who could help him manage the stress of playing to his home crowd, he sure made an interesting choice. That’s not a cheap shot it may appear, because I’m not arrogant enough to think that Murray isn’t aware of all this. Of course he is. So it’s pretty clear that Murray is thinking a lot less about the expectations and hopes of his fellow countrymen than about his own forehand volley and topspin lob.
And outside the technical realm, Mauresmo is passionate in exactly the fist-pumping way that Murray’s former mentor Ivan Lendl was not. Those are probably good signs, and give the guy credit for caring not a whit about how any of this looks to anyone but himself.
That, incidentally, sums up a lot of what Murray is all about. At the French Open, one of my colleagues said the hire of Mauresmo was a typically “out of the box” bit of thinking, and as tired as that cliché has become, it’s true. But Murray is also a complex thinker—a guy who can get himself tied up in all kinds of mental knots, which may help explain why he has so much trouble wrangling his perfectionist gene. It gets away from him now and then and sends him to the same dark places as an angry old man.
Here’s a pretty good example of Murray’s mind at work: In Paris, you may remember a mild controversy in Murray’s quarterfinal match with Gael Monfils. It happened when a ball fell out of Murray’s pocket during a rally, and the chair umpire immediately stopped play and awarded Monfils the point, before Murray’s forehand was called out. Murray strolled to the chair and the French crowd grew restive, booing and shouting while Murray engaged in a conversation with the arbiter. The galleries assumed that Murray was complaining about the point being given to Monfils, but in a lengthy monologue recorded by Neil Harman of the Times of London, Murray later set the record straight. Hang onto your hats, now:
Murray told Harman, “The rule is that that it is not a let when the ball comes out of my pocket, when it’s on my side, because you can’t interfere with your own shot. I didn’t know this. I thought if your hat falls off or a ball comes out of your pocket, it was immediately a let. But it only becomes a let once the ball has passed the net.”
According to the 370-word explanation Murray produced for Harman, the umpire admitted that he’d made a mistake, calling the let too soon, but understandably said he couldn’t change the call. “That’s fine,” Murray reported saying, for he knew that one way or the other Monfils ought to have the point.
Despite having nothing to gain but some vague lawyerly debating points, Murray went on, “The umpire messed up, he called it too quickly. He should have waited for my shot to go over the net and then called the point, because then it would have interfered with Gael in theory.”
Murray added, “I said (to the umpire) that I was annoyed because in that situation, it looks like I’m arguing the call and I was doing completely the opposite. He came down from his (umpire’s) chair and I said: ‘Can you not acknowledge that it’s his point, and I’ve conceded it?’ Because it looks like he’s giving Gael the point and I’m arguing it should be my point—which was completely not true. It was completely the opposite.”
Alright, all of us understand that it’s often worth making a point on principle. We know that potential mistakes ought to be noted and hashed out. Right is right, and all that. But sheesh, did Murray not understand that the controversy was neither necessary nor germane to the proceedings? Did really have to pick up his lance and charge at this windmill bursting with sword-wielding Monfils fanatics?
This was not a critical point in the match, but many of you will remember how Murray was brilliant for two sets but then imploded for another two (the let call was during this period) before finally dispatching Monfils in the fifth, 6-0, with darkness fast approaching. You have to wonder if allowing the match to get out of hand and become emotionally and physically draining match didn’t play a role in how flat Murray flat was in his subsequent, disappointing semifinal against Rafael Nadal.
Much was made earlier in Murray’s career of his similarity to John McEnroe, a resemblance that did not go unnoticed by the retired icon, who was singing Murray’s praises at a time when many pundits were still wondering what to make of the angular introvert and his oddly passive-aggressive game. Like McEnroe, Murray sometimes could be lying prone on a leather couch when he answers questions in his pressers. He occasionally lapses into a kind of fugue-state, as the interaction with Harman demonstrates. And like McEnroe, Murray seems capable of ignoring the big stuff (like the mixed reactions that greeted his decision to hire Mauresmo), yet eagerly applies himself to the task of turning molehills into mountains.
Oh, and there’s another similarity: Both men are Wimbledon champions who have been nothing less than brilliant on Centre Court. McEnroe played five consecutive finals there, starting in 1980, winning on three of those occasions. Murray isn’t quite in that class (yet), but he hasn’t lost before the semifinals since 2008—when he lost in the quarterfinals to eventual champion Nadal.
With Mauresmo in his guest box and the ball kept firmly stashed in his pocket, there’s no reason Murray can’t pull off the toughest assignment in tennis.