‘Made It, Ma!’ Andy Murray On Top Of The World

Well, knock me down with a feather.  The lad’s only gone and done it.  Andy Murray.  British tennis player.  World number 1.  I think I need to go and lie down.

Anyone who has lived through the last 77 years of men’s tennis, when British fans would hyperventilate with excitement any time a spirited underdog Brit overachieved by getting through to the 3rd round of Wimbledon, will understand how fantastically absurd the above sounds.   A British tennis player good enough not only to win Wimbledon – twice! – but become the world number 1.  Never in our wildest dreams could we have believed it.  How strange it seems now to hark back to those days when we would strain every quivering sinew with Tim Henman as he valiantly battled the serving giants on the hallowed courts of SW19, urged on desperately by fervid flag waving, Union Jack clad fans, yearning and longing for a home grown champion.  How we would sigh in melancholic despair when he faltered bravely at the semi final hurdle yet again, and curse the rain and the unlucky net cord that would inevitably scupper his progress to immortality and ours into delirium.

We would have been satiated if Tim had won just one Wimbledon.  He didn’t need to be good at anything else.  It’s not like anyone in this country was aware that tennis existed outside of the three week summer Queens/Wimbledon bubble anyway.  The thought of a British tennis player being good enough to be a consistently top player and challenge the very best simply didn’t exist.  Henman and Canadian-Brit compatriot Greg Rusedski were decent players who both got as high as world number 4 and won a handful of ATP titles, and Rusedski even got to a Grand Slam final, the US Open in 1997, but they were never consistent top level performers capable of going toe to toe with the very best, and being serial Grand Slam finalists and Masters winners.

In Andy Murray, Britain had, at last, found its tennis savior.  A British player who wasn’t merely a plucky loser but a proven winner.  And now, finally, our boy has become the world number one.  Well done, Andy!!!  We salute you.  You may drive us (or least me!) up the wall with your paralysing passivity and constant self-reproach, and send us scuttling behind sofas by getting embroiled in unnecessarily epic, gut wrenching, hair-tearing encounters, but we love you anyway.  We would rather be maddened by you than reassured by anyone else.

So how has Andy managed to surmount what appeared to be the insurmountable a mere five months ago?  Back in June, when Andy lost yet again to Novak Djokovic, this time in the French Open final at Roland Garros, and had to watch on the sidelines as the Serbian finally achieved his own grand ambition of doing the career slam, Andy looked about as likely to ascend the pinnacle of tennis as an asthmatic trying to climb Mount Everest.  Djokovic had nearly double Andy’s points tally, he held all four slams, and he had Andy in his pocket.  The world was at Djokovic’s feet while Andy seemed predestined to be the eternal bridesmaid.

But you know what they say: once you reach the summit, there is only one place you can go.  Straight back down.  Even then, Novak’s fall from his exalted perch has been alarmingly precipitous.  A toxic combination of niggling injuries, lack of motivation and marital difficulties has seen him go from being invincible to becoming combustible.  Andy, on the other hand, appears to have found a new lease of life.  Apart from a brief post-Olympic blip caused by exhaustion from his exertions in Rio that wrecked his US Open hopes and Britain’s chance of retaining the Davis Cup, he has not stopped winning.  After a successful Asian swing, and taking the title in Vienna, Andy had to get to the Paris Masters final, with Djokovic failing to reach the semi finals, to dethrone him.  Conveniently, Djokovic promptly lost in the quarter-finals to Marin Cilic, a player who had never previously beaten him in 14 matches.  That’s how bad it had become for Djokovic.  The number one spot was now in Andy’s hands.

Usually, in these situations, it is hide-behind-the-sofa-time, but in the event, frayed nerves and over-chewed fingernails were spared as he didn’t have to hit a ball in anger.  Milos Raonic helpfully pulled out on the eve of their semi final on Saturday, and Andy Murray was the new tennis world number one.  Yes, that’s Andy Murray of Great Britain, the world number one tennis player.

If his elevation was underwhelmingly anti-climactic, the final on the following day against a resurgent John Isner more than made up for it.  In their previous meeting, just two weeks ago, Andy had taught the big-serving giant a tennis lesson, thrashing him with the loss of only four games.  Isner would not be humiliated twice, and came out all guns blazing and big serve blasting.  Clearly, nobody puts Isner in a corner (bit difficult to do since he is 6 ft 10, ahem).  However, anybody who questions Andy’s worthiness as world number one should be made to watch the point he played when he was serving at 5-3 in the first set.  A flicked backhand cross court shot played instinctively on the run and off balance for a winner.  A shot he had no right to get to, let alone hit, for a winner.  Andy Murray may have difficulties winning Grand Slams against GOATs (greatest of all time) and his defensive counter-punching method of play may not be to everyone’s taste – including mine! – and too often hinder rather than help him, but his sheer natural talent should never be doubted.  Murray has an instinctive feel for the ball and ‘soft hands’ more reminiscent of the bygone wooden racket generation.  When he is in a creative mood, he is a joy to watch.

And, credit to him, over the last few weeks, he has played in a more aggressive way, and been far more willing to come forward and finish points off, which has paid rich dividend.  Equally as heartening was seeing a new positive attitude from Andy in the final on Sunday.  While Andy had taken the first set with a break of serve 6-3, he had not broken Isner’s resolve.  It became even more hardened.  Any slight chance Andy created was contemptuously swatted aside with yet another bullet serve.  And when Andy served a double fault in the second set tie break, the set was Isner’s.

The pattern continued in the third.  Now, once upon a time, Andy would have got frustrated and started berating himself, his team, the crowd and the universe.  But here, he remained refreshingly calm and jigged around with positivity every time an unplayable serve whizzed past him.  It was as if becoming the world number one had bestowed upon him a new sense of dignity.  There was a serenity in his manner that suggested he knew his chance would eventually come if he remained patient.  It did.  The hardest game in tennis is serving for, or to stay in, the match.  The pressure can render even the most powerful serve ineffective.  So it proved.  Isner faltered at the last, double faulting and hitting far too many second serves, which were ruthlessly punished by the joint best returner of serve in the game with vicious dipping returns to Isner’s feet that he could only dump helplessly long or into the net.  Andy had triumphed 6-3, 6-7, 6-4.  Unlike Vienna, Isner had made this a competitive match, but the new world number one (this may be repeated many times) was simply better and maintained his unbeaten record against him.

In winning his eight title of the season and 14th Masters overall, Andy Murray joined Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski in becoming the Paris Masters champion.  The Brits clearly enjoy sticking it to the French!  Of course, Andy’s detractors will justifiably claim that his displacement of Djokovic has been achieved through default, solely because of Djokovic’s alarming slump in form.  They will point to the fact that Andy has not beaten too many players of note in the last few months to get to the top, has a 1-3 losing head to head against Djokovic in 2016, with two of those defeats coming in Grand Slam finals, and has only won one Grand Slam to Djokovic’s two.

Andy will get the chance to prove the naysayers wrong at the World Tour Finals, which start at the O2 in London next Sunday.  Almost as though the gods were aware of his need to prove his world number one credentials, he has drawn the group of death.  He will face the US Open champion Stan Wawrinka; the man who beat him in the quarter finals at that US Open – Kei Nishikori, and the player who defeated him in the Cincinnati Masters final, Marin Cilic.  Although the task looks daunting, it does provide Murray with the ideal opportunity for revenge, and were he to beat Stan Wawrinka as well, it would go some way to make up for not winning the US Open.  It would also help him stay ahead of Djokovic, since he still needs to match or better Djokovic to remain ahead in the rankings and finish as the year end world number one.  How appropriate if he could do this in his home country in front of his adoring fans.

Andy Murray has already spoilt us rotten by winning his second Wimbledon title in July.  Ending the year as world number one by winning the World Tour Finals in London would be putting the icing on the cake, the cherry on the pie, the flake in the ice cream.  It would be a fitting end to a year during which Andy has demonstrated the power of sheer persistence.  Winston Churchill once said: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”  Murray’s 2016 is a morality tale of surmounting thwarted ambition.  Churchill also said: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”  Murray was continuously foiled by his nemesis Djokovic in the first half of the year, but just at the point of bitter disappointment, where he might have accepted his fate with weary resignation, Andy chose to take action.  He brought Ivan Lendl back to his team, he became more aggressive on court, and he tackled the grass court season with renewed vigor.  Fortune favours the resolute.  It triggered a run of form, allied with Novak’s slump, that has seen him eclipse his own lofty goals – getting to world number one was supposed to be his aim for next year.

New targets await.  Finally winning the Australian Open after numerous fruitless attempts.  Completing a career slam subsequently with the French Open.  Consolidating his position as world number one.  There will be no resting on laurels.  That is clearly not the Murray way.  His way seems to be: keep going until you get to where you need to be, hell or otherwise.  You never know, you might just stumble upon heaven along the way.

 

Advertisements

Andy Murray Swings Closer To World No 1

Back in June, when Novak Djokovic was master of the universe, conquering all before him, including Andy Murray, there seemed more chance of Scotland winning the World Cup – or at least, qualifying for one – than Andy Murray getting anywhere near the world number one spot, so far ahead was Djokovic from the rest of the field.  Fast forward four months, and a successful Asian swing has left Murray a tantalisingly close 915 points behind Djokovic.  Who’d a thunk it?

After his fruitless exertions in the Davis Cup against Argentina last month, Murray appeared exhausted and injured, and in sore need of a good, long rest.  Yet Andy looked as fresh as a daisy as he won the Shanghai Masters on Sunday against tenacious Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut  7-6, 6-1, without dropping a set during the whole tournament.  This followed a win in the ATP 500 China Open last week, giving Murray a points haul of 1,500 in the space of two weeks to close the gap on Djokovic, who only played Shanghai and suffered a mini meltdown on his way out of the semi finals to Bautista Agut.

Now, Murray’s detractors will be itching to point out that he didn’t beat anyone of note, but, hey, you can only beat who is in front of you.  However, the one thing Andy deserves immense credit for is his ‘bouncebackability’.  I must confess, after that French Open defeat to Djokovic, following on from losing to him in yet another Australian Open final, I did wonder whether Andy had hit the buffers and would ever win another Grand Slam again.  Then, barely a month later, with the inscrutable Ivan Lendl safely tucked back in his corner, wham, he was the Wimbledon champion.  And then, Olympic champion.  With Novak hurtling alarmingly to base after reaching his personal summit at Roland Garros, Andy seemed to be in the ascendancy.  Under Lendl’s positive influence he looked a different beast: more controlled, more positive, less irritable.  A newer Andy.  The US Open was his for the taking.

Only he couldn’t take it.  Against Nishikori in the quarter finals, the old demons came raging back, derailing him at a crucial time.  To rub salt in the wound, Stan Wawrinka won the US Open, his third Grand Slam out of three, illustrating his big match mentality.  For all of Andy’s consistency over the years and junior membership of the ‘Big Four’, Stan again had the same number of Grand Slams as him.  That brutal US Open loss in five frustrating sets, which Andy really ought to have won, was followed by an even more gruelling defeat against Del Potro in the Davis Cup, with Andy regressing once more to his trademark passive and grumbling self.  It looked like New Andy would be just a fleeting summer phenomenon.

But once again, after a bit of rest and recuperation, he has come bouncing back.  He has an ATP 500 in Vienna next week, followed by the final Masters of the season in Paris, plus the World Tour Finals in London, to do what has gone from being impossible to unlikely to maybe.  Of course, Andy being Andy, nothing is ever straightforward.  The pendulum keeps swinging, but Andy keeps going.  Perhaps soon, to the very top.

Stanimal Blasts Novak Off The Court – Again

Stan Wawrinka’s got the Indian Sign on Novak Djokovic.  He must be the only tennis player who loves seeing Djokovic staring down at him on the other side of the net.  Novak is his lucky charm.  A year ago, he famously destroyed Novak’s dreams of winning a career Grand Slam in the French Open final.  The previous year, he had defeated Novak in an epic 5 set quarter-final duel on his way to winning his first Grand Slam, the Australian Open, at the grand old age of 28.  On Sunday, he did it again.  He beat Djokovic in four sets to become the oldest man to win the US Open since Ken Roswell in 1970.

Stan the Man is now 3 out of 3 in Grand Slam finals.  That is some hit rate.  Especially, for someone who didn’t start winning Slams till he was nearly 29.  Wawrinka plays with the urgency of someone who’s taken a very long time to meet his destiny and who knows his time at the top is short.  Roger Federer casts a long shadow and for years Stan struggled to blossom in his illustrious teammate’s wake.

Stan has done in two years what Andy Murray toiled to accomplish in nearly a decade of trying.  Stan Wawrinka is the antithesis of Andy Murray.  Where the Scot is cautious, the Swiss throws caution to the wind.  Where the Scot pats a shot back and hopes for an error, the Swiss smashes a shot for a winner.  Stan’s exceptional hit rate is a testament to his high risk high reward style of play.  And that backhand.  A gloriously old fashioned, rip roaring, single handed bullet down the line.  Not as elegant as Frenchman Richard Gasquet’s graceful offering perhaps, but far more powerful and effective – it knocks holes through opponents.

How Novak must have cursed Britain’s Dan Evans for not taking that match point against Wawrinka in their third round encounter.  Unusually, it was a forehand volley that had saved Stan that day.  How many times does it happen in sport where a team or individual are on the verge of going out and then promptly end up winning the whole thing?  The moment he came back to beat Dan Evans, Stan’s name was on the trophy.

From then on, he made his way comfortably to the final.  Even though he had played twice as much tennis as Djokovic, whose own path to the final was rather surreal, with one opponent pulling out and two others retiring with injury mid match during the early rounds, the doubts concerned Djokovic’s fitness.  Although Djokovic won the opening set of the final, there was a feeling Wawrinka was just warming up.  After all, Wawrinka had dropped the opening set in both their previous two Grand Slam encounters, as well as during his quarter final and semi final matches.  Stan didn’t do opening sets.  They were just a warm up for the main action to come.

Once he had stared unleashing his groundstrokes, the winners flowed.  As usual, Wawrinka didn’t hold back.  The single backhand down the line money shot was motoring, the equally powerful bone crunching forehand was pushing Novak out of court, and crucially, he was bamboozling Djokovic, the best returner of serve in the game, with body serves and kickers.  Stan’s tennis is not subtle; it’s not pretty or delicate.  It’s not tennis for the purists, it’s tennis for adrenaline junkies.  If Novak thought that the new roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium meant he was protected against the elements, he was mistaken.  Stan Wawrinka was a one man tornado blowing and battering Djokovic into submission.  Novak’s powers of retrieval are legendary, but the tennis equivalent of The Road Runner had no answer to the sheer force of Wawrinka’s groundstrokes.

By the beginning of the fourth set, Novak’s toes were black, blue, blistering and bleeding from slipsliding side to side in increasingly desperate attempts to chase down machine gun bullets from Stan.  In despair, he had to ask for two medical time outs.  Now the cynics might have questioned the timing – when he was precariously close to losing the match and just before Stan had to serve – but the red stain blotched on Novak’s socks and the blood oozing out of one of his right toes confirmed the physical brutality of the contest and exonerated him.  He was suffering and wilting under Stan’s relentlessly powerful onslaught.  Though he fought valiantly, by the end he could barely gain any elevation on his serve and his movement was all but curtailed.  It was all he could do to ask the question of Stan in making him serve it out for the title.

Stan has never been a consistent performer.  He is too mercurial, his tennis too high risk.  But he is renowned as a big match player.  He hangs tough when it matters most.  There was never a doubt that Stan would serve it out.  Just like the French Open final last year, Stan demolished Novak in four sets, winning 6-7, 6-4, 7-5, 6-3.  He is one Wimbledon away from completing a career Grand Slam of all four titles, an astonishing record for someone who only won his first Grand Slam two and a half years ago as a 28 years old.

Ironically, Stan’s journey to Grand Slam success started at the US Open in 2013, when he defeated defending champion Andy Murray in the quarter finals on his way to a best ever Grand Slam appearance in the semi final.  His evolution from Roger Federer’s gentleman in waiting to king of the courts began in the same year with the appointment of Magnus Norman as his coach.  Norman had been the coach of the ill-fated Robin Soderling, who famously in 2009 became the first man to defeat Rafa Nadal at the French Open.  Sadly Soderling’s career came to a cruelly premature end due to illness.  His misfortune helped to change Wawrink’s life.  Norman transformed Stan from a maverick journeyman with a jaw dropping, sometime firing lethal weapon of a backhand into a powerhouse with equal groundstrokes on both sides and a vicious serve, and imbued him with a self-belief to go for his shots with fearless confidence.

No patsy percentage play for Stan.  Andy Murray should take note.  Winners win matches.  They don’t wait for their opponents to throw matches away.  For all of Murray’s consistency, he has struggled to win on the highest stage against the biggest names.  For all of Wawrinka’s inconsistency, his go-for-broke mentality has paid richly deserved dividends in the big finals against the biggest names.

The ‘Big Four’ may be no more but say hello to the ‘Big Three’ – Novak, Andy and Stan.  The three winners of the four Grand Slams this year.  Usually, the changing of the guard involves the next generation stepping up.  Instead, tennis has a golden oldie stepping out from the shadows and into the starlight.  In tennis, old is the new young.  31 is the new 21.  Stan the Man gives us all hope that it is never too late to be what you might have been.

 

 

The Olympics: Day 2

Women’s Road Race:  A lot of hypocritical bleating about Lizzie Armistead’s participation in the race after getting cleared at the last minute by CAS over 3 missed tests.  Cycling is a sport where nearly all its top racers have been tainted by drugs to the point where I am not sure most fans believe anybody is clean, so all this whinging just comes across as sanctimonious.  Missing 3 drugs tests (reduced to 2 on appeal) is a minor infringement compared to what many top cyclists have done, several of whom have been allowed to return to the sport after actual drugs offenses.  Likewise, there are many competitors who have served drugs bans, not to mention non-track and field Russian competitors (as well as Kenyans), taking part here, so it’s rather unfair to single out Armistead when she hasn’t actually failed a drugs test.

As it happens, Lizzie didn’t win or medal, but the race was overshadowed by a horrific crash on the descent involving race leader Annemiek Van Vleuten, who was taken to hospital with severe concussion and three small fractures to her lower back.  Fingers crossed she recovers soon.

Tennis: Ok, I will lay my cards on the table.  I don’t think tennis should be in the Olympics.  But by God, what an amazing match between Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin Del Potro!  The last time these two boys met, they served up an epic 4h 43 min semi-final at Wimbledon in 2014, which Djokovic eventually won.  The last time these two boys met at the Olympics was ironically also at Wimbledon Centre Court, at London 2012.  It was Delpo who had triumphed then in straight sets to win the bronze medal.  In between, and since, poor Del Potro’s tennis career has been ravaged by persistent wrist injuries.

Here, in the buzzing atmosphere of the Tennis Centre at Barra Olympic Park, the two Grand Slam champions played another thrilling match with breathtaking rallies and scintillating winners that had the crowd roaring with delight and bowing in respect.  Del Potro, helped by some pile driver forehands and a couple of friendly net cords, stormed his way to win the first set on a tie break, having failed to convert numerous break points on Djokovic’s serve during the set.

Djokovic never knows when he is beaten (except by big serving Americans on grass, obviously!), and even though he was on the back foot the entire match, he somehow took Del Potro to yet another tie break in the second set, but the zen was with the lanky Argentinian.  It was fittingly ironic that the winning point should be a forehand crosscourt winner helped on its way by an accommodating net cord.

It was an incredibly emotional match for both men.  Djokovic was visibly upset, having lost perhaps his last chance to win an Olympic medal.  For Delpo, it was another positive step on his comeback trail, and it was heartening to see him hit through his backhand several times.  There was even a magnificent crosscourt backhand winner halfway through the second set, which gives hope that his wrist troubles are behind him and he can be competitive on his backhand side.

I still don’t think tennis should be in the Olympics, but the players don’t half make it difficult to argue against kicking it out.

Beach Volleyball:  What a sexist sport!  How come the women have to wear itsy bitsy tenny weeny bikinis while the men stay modest in t-shirt and shorts?  Where’s the equality?  Let’s have budgie smugglers for the men, or t-shirt and shorts for all.  Whaddya mean people (ie men) only watch beach volleyball to ogle the women?

Swimming:  Ok, I actually missed Adam Peaty’s 100m Breaststroke gold medal win.  Oops.  Blame Novak and Juan Martin!  By the time the tennis had finished and I had switched channels, Adam was celebrating.  Well, it was never in doubt, was it?  He won it by a mile.  Unlike the last British man to win an Olympic Gold, Adrian Moorhouse, also in the 100m Breaststroke, who won in Seoul 1988 by one hundredth of a second.  Adam though could have stopped for a cup of tea and a chat and still made it comfortably in first place.  He destroyed his world record again (he seems to be on a record breaking loop), lowering it dramatically from 57.55 to 57.13.  Even Adrian Moorhouse must have been satisfied with that! [see Olympics Day 1]

Adam Peaty’s gold medal win seemed to be inspiring as, in the very next race, Jazz Carlin won a superb silver in the Women’s 400m Freestyle behind Katie Ledecky, who was demonstrating her own version of Peatyesque dominance.  After waiting 2 whole days for a medal, Britain had won 2 medals in the space of a few minutes.  Bit like buses then…

 

Wimbledon: Novak Shock-ovic!

Hands up who saw this coming?  No, me neither.  I doubt even Sam Querry’s nearest and dearest would have imagined such an outcome in their wildest dreams.  To anyone who has followed tennis for the last couple of years, it must have seemed like Novak would keep winning forever to the point where you were left wondering why anyone else bothered to turn up and play.

Novak’s shock third round defeat at Wimbledon (he hasn’t lost this early in a Grand Slam since 2009, would you believe) may be devastating for him and his fans, but it is a blessed relief for tennis.  As I have stated before on this blog, sport needs rivalries.  Or it needs to be dominated by big, crowd pleasing personalities.  Djokovic elicits respect, but he is not adored.  Not like Federer, Nadal or Murray.  That grates on him.  He has done everything this year to play to the crowd.  Only the rain sodden Roland Garros crowd responded in kind.  Perhaps they could see how hard he was trying to win them over and felt sorry for him.  But elsewhere, Djokovic has found it hard to get the love.  And he was certainly not going to get any at Wimbledon, Federer and Murray’s backyard!

With him gone, the draw opens up.  Uncertainty may be bad in politics and finance, but in the sporting arena, it is the lifeblood on which sport thrives.  Predictability in sport means boredom and stagnation.  With the demise of the big four, and Andy Murray unable to challenge Djokovic’s supremacy in Grand Slams, tennis was turning into a procession, and for many tennis fans, it was turning them off (ok, it was turning me off).

It is fitting that it should be the biggest and best Grand Slam in the world, Wimbledon, that will crown a new champion for the first time since the French Open last year, when Stan Wawrinka shocked Djokovic in the final and made him wait another agonising year to complete his career Grand Slam.

No doubt, after some rest and recuperation, Novak Djokovic will be back fighting to reinstate himself as the supreme tennis champion.  But in the meanwhile, Federer and Murray fans (yes, that would be me!) are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of another coveted Wimbledon title for their man.

Plus ça change Andy, plus ça change

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.

 

Andy Murray Needs To Be More Braveheart And Less Canny Scot

Can Andy Murray’s next coach tell him some home truths, please?  That when he plays bold, attacking, aggressive, adventurous, assertive, forceful, risk taking, net-hugging tennis HE WINS.  It is such a waste seeing the second best volleyer in tennis after Roger Federer stubbornly clinging to the baseline like a life raft and getting bogged down in endless, cautious pitter patter rallies against players with metronomic precision.  It is equally frustrating seeing a player with one of the best first serves in the game deliver feeble, safety first second serves a junior girl could swot away.  At least on that count the penny finally seems to have dropped, with Murray now daring to add more pace so that whilst still not much of a weapon, it is no longer as much of a liability.

However, the defensive cat and mousing Andy is so fond of is a bad habit that’s been hard to break.  Under the great Ivan Lendl’s tutelage Andy was briefly diverted from his uber-conservative way of playing towards a more offensive attacking game.  It is no coincidence that Andy won his only 2 Grand Slams, including the longed for Wimbledon title, during that forceful period.  Since then, sadly, he has regressed to his default reactionary approach, and unsurprisingly, not won a Grand Slam again.

On Sunday though, at the final of the Italian Open Masters, Andy Murray defeated his nemesis Novak Djokovic in straight sets 6-3, 6-3, by playing precisely the kind of aggressive, attacking tennis behind hard, consistent serving that won him those two Grand Slams.  Albeit that Novak Djokovic had played an epic, draining 3 hour match against the speedy Kei Nishikori the night before that hadn’t finished until 11.30pm, and was inevitably tired and irritable.  Perhaps it had been a cunning ploy by the Italian Open organisers to inject some uncertainty into the outcome of the final.  Maybe they wanted to give Andy a chance to cause an upset on his birthday by handicapping Novak and putting him on late against a potentially difficult opponent, whilst giving Andy the 2pm afternoon slot against lucky loser Lucas Pouille.  If so, it certainly worked, since Andy had little trouble dispatching the Frenchman in under an hour, leaving him the remainder of the day to rest, relax and recuperate.

Difficult scheduling hasn’t stopped the indefatigable Novak Djokovic in the past, but what made the difference in this match was Andy’s aggressive mentality.  He took it to Novak, and he won out.

If his new coach can convince Andy to keep taking it to his opponents and to abandon the safety net of the baseline in favour of the actual net of the tennis court, there is still time for Andy to win another Grand Slam or two. But he has to be brave and dare to take a chance – on himself.