Crossing the Invisible Net

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Andy Murray has gone all-in with Amelie Mauresmo in 2015, and early results are encouraging. (AP Photo)

Andy Murray appeared to be on the verge of vindication at this year’s Australian Open. Two months earlier, he had been dismantled by Roger Federer, 6-0, 6-1, in front of his home audience in London at the World Tour Finals; the loss had been embarrassing enough that Murray felt compelled to apologize to his fans for it: “I will work as hard as I can through the off-season and get back to my best level for the beginning of the new year...sorry,” he wrote on Twitter.

Now, as he stood inside Rod Laver Arena after a tough semifinal win and praised his coach, Amelie Mauresmo, Murray could feel like he had lived up to his word. He was in his first Grand Slam final since Wimbledon 2013, and he hadn’t been wrong, it was clear now, to choose Mauresmo.

Then it happened all over again. Murray had lost 12 of 13 games to Federer at the O2 Arena in November, and that’s exactly what he did at the end of his Aussie Open final to Novak Djokovic. After winning a second-set tiebreaker, Murray led 2-0 in the third; he would win just one more game and go out, flailing bitterly, 6-0 in the fourth set. Worse, as he admitted afterward, he had let himself become distracted by Djokovic, who struggled physically early in sets two and three before recovering. Murray complained at the start of the tournament about being a called a “drama queen” in the past; now he seemed to be implying something similar about Djokovic.

Is Murray back to square one? Will the whispers about Mauresmo being a poor substitute for his last coach, Ivan Lendl, begin again? British writer Mark Hodgkinson addressed that question in a post at, “Murray’s anger: Should Lendl fans blame Mauresmo?” Did Murray suffer what Pat Cash called a “meltdown” in the final because Lendl wasn’t there to scare him straight? 

Hodgkinson quotes Judy Murray, Toni Nadal, and Chris Evert on the Lendl-Murray relationship; they all agree that the best thing Ivan did for Andy was to keep him calm.

“The talent and the shots, they have always been there,” Uncle Toni says, “but Lendl definitely helped Murray with the mental side. In the important moments, Murray could be much calmer on court, much more tranquil.”

How quick we are to invent lost paradises. Lendl undoubtedly had a positive effect on Murray; with him, he won his first two, and so far only two, major titles. And he was calmer, at times. I remember Murray working hard to stay that way during his opening round at the Australian Open in 2012, the first Grand Slam match where Lendl was in his player’s box. But plenty of un-calm moments were to follow, even when Murray had his greatest successes.

During the 2012 U.S. Open final, a match he won, Murray spent the better part of a set screaming that his legs were "Jelly!" And while he won the title at Wimbledon the following year, he had more than a few choice words for himself along the way, especially when he came back from two sets down to beat Fernando Verdasco in the quarters. As Hodgkinson helpfully recalls, Murray has said, “It wouldn’t make me feel good, bottling up my emotions—saying nothing and standing there makes me feel flat.”

The truth is that Murray not only likes and needs to be vocal; he likes and needs to hear new voices in return. Over the years, he hasn't been afraid to change his coaching situations up when they get stale. He also hasn’t been afraid to go in different directions with his choices, and to fly solo when necessary. Early in his career, Murray made progress with Brad Gilbert, but after deciding that the American’s voluble style wasn’t for him, he put together a more laid-back team of friends led by the easygoing Miles Maclagan. Later, when a major title continued to elude him, Murray hired Lendl, a player who had worked hard to go from Grand Slam also-ran to Grand Slam champion. 

When that relationship ran its course two years later, Murray, in an echo of the Gilbert-to-Maclagan transition, brought Mauresmo on board. After living with the famously hard-edged Lendl, he seems happy to be in a cooperative working relationship with Mauresmo. Asked what he likes most about her, he invariably mentions how well she listens, and how productive their conversations are. With her, Murray also mixed up his training again in the off-season, emphasizing sprints and speed work for the first time in years. The results spoke for themselves in Melbourne. One of the pleasures of being a tennis fan is seeing a person grow up and and discover themselves, and Murray has given us that opportunity over the last decade.

“I enjoy working with Amelie,” Murray said in Australia, “I think she’s fantastic. She gets on very well with my team, too. She has a good personality to coach and also has a lot of experience as well, so I’m happy with the way it’s working.”

Murray also described Mauresmo as “brave” for taking on the job, and he hasn’t shied away from addressing the gender politics involved in his choice.

“A lot of people criticized me working with her,” Murray said, “and I think so far this week we’ve shown that women can be very good coaches as well.”

It’s these kinds of comments that have made Murray, who likes nothing more than to prove people wrong, a feminist hero of sorts.

“Professional sportsmen aren’t usually feminist icons,” wrote Claire Sibbick at Elle.UK last week, “but the fact that Murray is championing women as being just as capable as men is a good step in the right direction.”

Murray being hailed as an icon of anti-sexism may come as a surprise to some, but the seeds have been evident for a while. Murray’s mother, Judy, was his first coach, and unlike most of the men, he has always shown an interest in the women’s side of the sport. He championed France's Caroline Garcia four years ago, and did the same with the Czech Republic's Karolina Pliskova this January. He has pronounced himself a fan of Agnieszka Radwanska’s. And his run to the mixed-doubles silver medal with Laura Robson was one of the highlights of the London Olympics.

His move to hire Mauresmo may already have had an effect—not on the men’s side, but on the women’s side. Even there, women coaches have never been the norm; but this off-season, two of Mauresmo’s fellow former Grand Slam champs, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Navratilova, took the coaching plunge  with Madison Keys and Radwanska.

Beyond that, Murray’s move feels like a watershed for a game that has never made the most of its dual-gender potential. Tennis is the rare major professional sport where men and women compete at many of the same events, and the women can be bigger stars, and bigger draws, than the men. The latter point is more important than ever; tennis’ international cast of celebrities would seem to be perfect for the age of social media, where stars are the only common denominator. Yet rather than combine forces, the two tours have more typically been at odds, and they have been that way since their beginnings in the early 1970s. 

When the ATP brought 80 of its male players together to boycott Wimbledon in 1973, the leader on the women’s side, Billie Jean King, offered to join forces with them. She barely received a call back; even Arthur Ashe, so progressive on other fronts, wasn’t interested. Four decades later and not much has changed. Many of the men still protest the idea of equal pay, and few have a good word, or any word, to say about the women’s game.

But three recent developments have made me hopeful that a slow sea change could be in the offing for the sport. (1) New ATP player council president Eric Butorac has said he doesn’t want to revisit the equal-pay debate; (2) Last fall, the IPTL exhibition league gave us a glimpse of what the sport can offer, in particular on social media, when the men and women team up and put their star power together; and (3) Murray’s pioneering choice of, and success with, Mauresmo. 

Andy Murray may not have finished the Aussie Open the way he wanted, but when it come to his effect on tennis, the tournament isn't over yet.

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