Andy Murray and the “clutch” question.

Written by  //  February 2, 2012  //  Sport  //  3 Comments

Andy Murray isn’t an ethereally beautiful being. He doesn’t brim with flawlessness. His tennis doesn’t radiate with transcendence as it does for the triumvirate above him, each of whom seems to be abound with this crazy lust for perfection, and bizarrely enough appear to reach levels that are beyond realistic conceptions of what is attainable on a tennis court. Murray hasn’t, as we’ve been reminded each time he has taken to court, won a single Grand Slam title, in spite of reaching the semifinal or higher eight times. His contests with any of the top three in Grand Slams haven’t teemed with mythical undertones, as is the case when one of them faces someone from within their exalted club.

At least, these were the words I had planned on writing before Murray’s semifinal against Novak Djokovic last Friday. Not that any of this has changed since, but what Murray showed in the loss to Djokovic, in a contest that had everything one can hope to see in a tennis match – sweat, toil, pain, will, brilliance, drama, you name it – was that maybe we are set for an even more glorious order at the top of men’s tennis – one that will accord space for a narrative of far greater mythical proportions.

For a year now, Murray, obviously an immensely talented ball striker, endowed with an almost uncanny grasp of the geometry of a tennis court – I dare say, a facet of the game in which he is more gifted than any of the top three players – has stayed firmly rooted outside the oligarchy at the top; not so far outside it for him to take solace in the impossibility of the pursuit, but tantalizingly and cruelly close to it. Prior to this year’s Australian Open, Murray had reached, at least, the semifinal in six of the last eight grand slams, losing twice in the final, both times in Melbourne. It was clear that he belonged in the top four just as much as he didn’t in the top three. It must have been a brutal, lonely place to be.

Professional athletes devote almost all their formative years to a singular pursuit, as indeed Murray has to tennis for nearly all 24 years of his life. Murray and Djokovic played each other for the first time when they were both 13, at Les Petits, a match that Murray remembers winning 6-1, 6-0. A decade later, in the Australian Open final in 2011, a match that Murray went into, perhaps, on equal footing with Djokovic, the Serb trounced him in straight sets, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3. While Djokovic seemed to relish the occasion, Murray crumbled under the spotlight. This was clutch time, and Murray wasn’t up for it. It was his chance at greatness, and he had blown it. No doubt, Djokovic played astonishingly well, and would have, perhaps, defeated anybody on the day, but Murray’s implosion was inexplicable.

Since then – and prior to the ongoing Australian Open – Murray had lost to Nadal in the semifinals of the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. Apart from the first set of the Wimbledon semifinal, which he won by playing some inspired, attacking tennis that ran counter to his natural instincts, Murray has never quite looked like he has belonged in the company of the top three. He has been commandingly conquered on each occasion. Indeed much of this has to do with Djokovic and Nadal’s own brilliance, but the manner of the losses, when considering Murray’s talents mean that the intangibles have to be questioned – the supreme, untouchable mental fortitude that each of the top three brings to the tennis court that have seemed non-existent in the Scot.

It’s not that Murray can’t beat these players – he has shown several times in Master’s tournaments, and twice in Grand Slams (both times against Rafael Nadal) – that he is fully capable of defeating any of the top three, and that he can do so authoritatively. In the biggest stage, though, his lack of confidence has often exhibited itself as much as a state as it is a trait. This is not to say that he is incapable of overcoming any mental frailties, or that even a failure to do so would make him a lesser player, but until Friday’s semifinal, there was little to indicate that he would, in fact, play the opponent and not the occasion. But on Friday, Murray, for large periods, played as though the shackles had been broken, as though he finally believed in his abilities. At the end of the first set, which Djokovic won 6-3, it really did feel like déjà vu, and even more so when he went up 2-0 in the second set. In 2011, having lost the first set 4-6, Murray crumbled in the second, littering the set with unforced errors; there seemed to be an utter lack of purpose behind any of his stroke-play – forehands, limp and aimless, either found the net or went wide and long; his usually lethal backhand curiously went off-radar, and even his on-court movement took on a lethargic turn.

But this year in the phases that followed the early slip in the second set, he was imperious – there were long, punishing rallies that the Murray of last year may have found a way to lose, but here he stood steadfast, showcasing unbelievable defensive skills, and when the opportunity presented itself, an ability to finish the point with dazzling accuracy and purpose. He even threw in a majestic, Sampras-esque overhead for, good measure. There was a sudden burst of courage in his game plan – groundstrokes were struck with greater depth, and the drop shots, which appeared perfunctory last year, were executed with a precise purpose. Consider this point when Murray out-Djokoviced Djokovic, for instance, at 15-30, 3-4: in evidence was a splendid amalgam of razor sharp defensive skills – twenty strokes into the rally, Murray lunged on his backhand side to keep the ball in play with Gumby-like elasticity – and supreme on-court nous – by constantly varying the angles and the spin on his strokes – to force the Serb into submission. There was more of that in the third set too. In the tiebreak with Djokovic serving at 3-5, Murray produced a rally of astounding virtuosity, sending him from corner to corner before finishing with a roaring forehand into the open court. It was clear proof that Murray had the perceptible goods necessary to defeat Djokovic; his forehand, often considered his weakest stroke, was struck with fluidity, and he found improbable angles that put even Djokovic outside his comfort zone – the Serb, seemingly, can reach any ball, but when Murray landed his cross-court forehands within the service box, spinning away from the court, Djokovic struggled to reach them with enough time to make a meaningful return.

But after going two sets to one up, the familiar Murray-meltdown was back. This was his chance to impose himself on the occasion, but here he was collapsing, wayward with his groundstrokes, and even choosing to drive-volley when the overhead was the simpler option, and finding himself broken in the first game. Murray’s disintegration, unhappily for him, coincided with Djokovic finding his rhythm, and the next thing we knew, the defending champion was up 5-2 in the deciding set.

After somehow holding the next game, though, and with Djokovic serving for the match, Murray broke to love. It was beautiful, clinical tennis. Murray was showing that deep down inside him he had the ability to fight back against the world’s number one player in the fifth set of a Grand Slam semifinal – it was the intangible that for so long, we thought Murray lacked. Ultimately, Djokovic, astoundingly brilliant at 6-5 broke to win the contest, a gladiatorial battle that will go down as one of the finest matches of the year, but it wasn’t the final game where Murray had lost it. It was his inability to turn a supreme front-running position into a position of unassailable reach in the fourth set that cost him. It’s difficult to imagine that either Djokovic or Nadal would have played as poorly as Murray did in the set, but those aren’t the moments that Murray wants to remember from this match, for unlike his prior appearances in the final stages of a Grand Slam, here he showed the spunk for battle. It seemed he too – like Nadal, Federer and Djokovic – could summon a magical prowess when most needed. For all the frailties that he displayed, Murray had also made a mental step-up.

It was only a little over a year ago when it appeared there would be no challenging the Federer-Nadal duopoly at the top, but here we are, with one of sport’s greatest ever tri-valries. Murray on Friday, whether it had anything to do with his new coach, Ivan Lendl – who himself lost his first five grand slam finals – or not, showed a sudden thirst for the occasion. Unlike last year, he was savoring the stage. He seemed to intrinsically believe that he could beat Djokovic in a major semifinal. Hopefully, it is that conviction, which Murray will retain from this contest, and, not the implosion in the fourth set, and, who knows – if it isn’t too greedy of us to ask – perhaps the rivalry at the top of men’s tennis could become even more implausibly grand.

3 Comments on "Andy Murray and the “clutch” question."

  1. rajasekaran k February 3, 2012 at 3:14 pm ·

    you have vividly depicted the semi final and you made no bones about your admiration for have signed off positively expecting him to excel in future slams.however, i feel Murray can not succeed in five setters against the top three in last fours/two as he is not able to sustain the level of intensity.if at all he can win a slam, it could be in Wimbledon,that too, in straight sets or in a four setter. i wish i should be proved wrong as i too pinned great hopes on this man and they are vanishing now.

  2. Arghya February 4, 2012 at 9:13 am ·

    Suhrith, as ever, a wonderful post. You’re right- there was a perceptible change in Murray’s attitude in this Australian Open. I have no doubt he can beat Federer in the course of this year in a Grand Slam, if he ever happens to face him in a final, but for Nadal and Djokovic, he has to be mentally all there for 5 sets and that is still a big question mark. Hopefully Lendl will help, there seems to be something wonderfully intuitive about the combination of LEndl and Murray, two of the saddest looking men on a tennis court ever. Hopefully they can come together and do great things!

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