Thursday, 20 January 2011
Murray aiming to go one step better as second week approaches
2011 has already been a successful year for English (and some would say South African) sportsmen in Australia. So can Scotland’s premier sportsman deliver some Scottish success in Melbourne?
Andy Murray headed to Australia a fortnight ago in confident mood – he always does. Murray has made a habit of starting the tennis season with a bang in recent years. Encouraged by gruelling winter training sessions in Miami, he won the season opening tournament in Doha in 2008 and 2009.
However, disappointing defeats in Melbourne, to eventual finalist Jo-Wilfred Tsonga in the first round in ’08, and to Spaniard Fernando Verdasco in at the last-16 stage in ’09, forced a re-think in Murray’s preparation for the year’s opening grand slam tournament. He abandoned his title defence in Doha last year, instead choosing to play in the exhibition Hopman Cup tournament alongside fellow Brit Laura Robson.
A relaxation in the amount of tennis the Scot played in the lead up to Melbourne appeared to work. The man from Dunblane cruised through to his second grand slam final, defeating (albeit an ailing) Rafa Nadal in straight sets in the quarter-finals.
However, Murray appeared to hit a wall in the final against Roger Federer. In an eerily similar performance to that of Murray’s maiden grand slam final, at the US Open in 2008, he was swept aside by his Swiss opponent in straight sets. Whether the result was caused by Murray feeling the pressure or simply the outstanding play of his opponent is hard to judge. What is for certain though is that the defeat hit Murray hard – harder than any in his career to date. Yet, that hurt did reveal one positive - how far Murray had developed.
When he faced Federer in that final at Flushing Meadows two years ago it was written off as a great chance for Murray to gain the experience of playing in a slam final. Almost no one expected him to win – at some stages in the match you felt neither did he. Last January’s clash was quite different. Many pundits believed in Murray, the player himself seemed to have even more than belief – a feeling that his destiny as a grand slam champion was about to be fulfilled. When that didn’t happen, the pain was there to see. The only consolation? The man holding the trophy had been there, done that, got the hankie.
Nevertheless, Murray’s form slumped dramatically throughout the first half of the 2010 season. Only once he got onto the green grass of home at Wimbledon did his game really recover, making his first semi-final appearance since the Australian Open defeat.
Yet, even at the All England Club, in losing again in three sets, this time to Nadal, questions were raised about Murray’s big game belief and temperament.
Questions that are a tad unfair. There is no doubt about how good Murray is. He is almost certainly the best Scottish sportsman of his generation (only Chris Hoy comes close). However, he will only be recognised as such if he wins titles – the big ones.
Whilst it is hard to dismiss his six Masters Series titles (a selection of tournaments ranked just below the four grand slams), they do not penetrate the public interest or, for that matter, the players’ ambitions in the way the slams do.
The problem for Murray is that if he was born at the right time to be recognised as the best Scot of his era then he was certainly not born in the generation most favourable to winning tennis grand slams. He will go down as having competed against the two greatest players ever to have lifted a racket to this point in history.
If 2009 was the year of Federer’s redemption then in 2010 Rafa undoubtedly regained the title belt at the top of men’s tennis. Should Nadal succeed in claiming a second Australian Open title he would become only the second man, after Rod Laver in 1969, to hold all four major titles at the same time.
The worrying fact for Murray and his new buddy, World No. 3 Novak Djokovic, is that Nadal is still only 24. With his knee troubles seemingly resolved and nine grand slams already on the mantelpiece, the Spaniard seems set to bypass Federer’s record of 16 slams in the coming years. As for the Swiss, well his coach, Paul Annacone, warned the competition last week that Federer still has the hunger to win 20 slams before he retires.
This time last year I thought the time was right for Andy to become the Wizard of Aus. A year on and I, and many other commentators, are less convinced. However, it is not only on the court but in the mind that Murray must now follow Federer and Nadal’s example.
Melbourne has been the graveyard of knee-jerk reactions in recent years. Many wrote off Federer when Nadal appeared to have his number in 2009. The same was said of Nadal last January when his knees, not for the first time, caused him to concede his title prematurely. Post Melbourne, Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows, in 2010 the same voices have questioned Murray’s mental fortitude. There is only one way to banish them and the ‘Scottish glorious failure’ tag, once and for all.