There’s a famous quote attributed to Albert Einstein where he defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Obviously no tennis coach except Ivan Lendl has managed to point out this truism to Andy Murray, or if they have, he has chosen to ignore it. Unfortunately for him, it is the sole reason why he has now lost yet another Grand Slam final.
Andy has, of course, had the misfortune to play in probably the greatest era of men’s tennis, and the three men who have been his nemeses are currently the most successful tennis players of all time. Roger Federer is number one with 17 Grand Slams; Rafael Nadal is joint second with Pete Sampras on 14 and Novak Djokovic today became the third most successful player (jointly with Roy Emerson) on 12. Therefore, it should be no disgrace to lose to the very best. However, for a player who has now been in 10 Grand Slam finals himself, which is no mean feat, Andy has never given himself a chance in most of the finals he has played.
Andy’s greatest nemesis has not been one of the illustrious trio but his own passivity. Yet again today in the French Open final, after an excellent start, Andy gave away the initiative to Novak Djokovic on a silver platter right at the beginning of the second set and promptly lost the match – very tamely. From aggressive intent to passive pitter patter in the space of two games. How to explain such a pathetic retreat? Andy won the first set 6-3. So far all was good. He then put Djokovic under pressure straight away and earned himself a break point. Even better. But at the very point that Andy should have been aggressive and taken the break point on, he allowed Djokovic to take the initiative and come forward, and he duly said thank you very much and won the point.
From that moment on, the worm turned. Novak won the game and for some inexplicable reason, Andy started retreating into his shell and seemed content simply to return the ball back to Novak and wait for him to make a mistake. But Novak wasn’t making mistakes in the first set just for the hell of it. He was making them because Andy forced him to do so by playing aggressive tennis and not allowing him to get into a rhythm. So why, oh why, did Andy not do more of the same in the second set? What did he have to lose? He wasn’t the favourite for the match. He didn’t have the pressure of going for the career Grand Slam. The match was Novak’s to lose. Andy had the freedom to hit out and just go for it.
Instead, it was back to the same old, same old. Pitter patter tennis from the back of the court waiting for his opponent to do something. Well, you leave it to the man who has won 5 out of the last 6 Grand Slams and all he will do is to say thank you very much and get you with one of those soul destroying precision shots that tantalisingly skims the line for a winner. Which is exactly what Novak did. And yet, not once did Andy return to his aggressive attacking game that had served him so well in the opening set. Well, not until all hope was lost in the fourth set. He managed to break Djokovic’s serve as he was serving for the title. Sadly for Andy, Novak had the safety net of a double break so his effort was futile because it was so belated. Why could he not have mustered up such risky never-say-die tennis when it actually mattered in the 2nd and 3rd sets? In fact, why play passively at all? Why go back to that?
Some may cite fatigue for Murray’s easy capitulation, but if that was the case, surely it was all the more reason to cut the rallies short by going for an attacking option as soon as he could see an opening. Why engage in long rallies with the man with the most metronomic precision in tennis? That way madness lay! As if the obvious needed stating, the statistics showed that Murray was the one winning the shorter rallies and Djokovic the longer ones. No shit Sherlock. Yet Murray persisted in his passively defensive tactics. And yet again, it cost him a Grand Slam.
Andy has now lost 8 Slam finals out of 10, coincidentally the same as Novak. But unlike Novak he has won only 2 whereas the Serbian is now joint 3rd on the all time list with 12. And the reason is simple. It is not necessarily because Djokovic is better. Andy is arguably more naturally gifted. It is because Djokovic, for all his defensive scrambling, is a genius at turning defence into attack. His tennis is passive aggressive. He is not content simply to sit at the back and defend. He is a player who defends with purpose, with intent. He scrambles not only to get himself back into the point, but where he can, he will try to put his opponent on the back foot at the same time.
Novak is a deceptively aggressive player. You don’t win 12 Grand Slams in the greatest era of men’s tennis by sitting at the back and waiting for your opponent to make all the moves. You win by taking calculated risks and going for your shots when the opportunity arises. Fortune does favour the brave. It does not favour the passive, the cautious, the careful. It favours those who make chances and those who take them. At the start of the second set Andy Murray had a chance and he didn’t dare to take it – and he paid the price. He let Djokovic back in the game and thus allowed him to grab the initiative in the match. Djokovic seized that precious opportunity like a ravenous dog given a sliver of a bone and there was no way on earth he was ever going to let go. Djokovic fully deserves his desperately desired career Grand Slam.
As for Andy – once more he’s been scuppered by his own mental limitations: his inability to break free of his own crippling passivity in the most important matches of his life. It’s no use making the excuse that he’s playing against one of the greatest. Andy is perfectly capable of matching Djokovic tennis wise, as was amply demonstrated in the first set. But he has shown once again that he is incapable of changing his mentality when it really matters. He cannot maintain an aggressive approach for the whole match against the very best in Grand Slam finals. That is why Andy is, yet again, the nearly man of tennis rather than the main man. No change, no win – simple as.