Andy Murray is perverse. When you think he going to breeze through a match, he makes a song and dance of it. When you think it’s going to be hard going, he cruises through looking like the best player in the world. When you think it’s going to be tough but he will come through because he usually does, he confounds expectation by going out.
What to make of his quarter-final match against Kei Nishikori at the US Open? Andy has marshmallows for brains sometimes. Either that or he has an evil Mr Hyde-esque passive twin that takes over and simply waits for his opponent to make mistakes. Because passive Andy was back with a vengeance and grumpily giving away the initiative, and with it, the match.
We thought we had seen the last of passive Andy with the return of Ivan Lendl and Andy’s aggressive, attacking performances over the summer. It had all boded so well for the US Open. Novak Djokovic was struggling with injuries and personal issues, and Andy was Wimbledon champion on a winning roll. Not only did a fourth Grand Slam beckon, but also the once unthinkable prospect of challenging for the world no 1 position. How quickly things change in sport. Novak gets a cushy ride to the semis when three of his opponents either withdraw or retire with injures, conveniently giving him vital time to rest and recuperate, while Andy inexplicably self destructs against an opponent against whom he had a 7-1 winning record.
The real disappointment isn’t that Murray lost the match, but the way he lost it. It’s the way he always loses matches. Playing passively and imploding mentally. Allowing his opponent to get the first hit, and too often the second and third. Allowing his opponent to come in and dictate at the net – Kei Nishikori is 5 ft 10 with a piddly serve for heaven’s sake, yet he was able to play serve and volley like a time traveller from the Becker-Edberg era. Allowing his opponent to drop shot him at will because he remained so resolutely glued to the baseline. Allowing the closure of the roof in the second set to disrupt his rhythm and transform the complexion of the match. Allowing the vocal crowd support for Nishikori to get under his skin. Most criminally, allowing a let and replayed point for a loud noise midway on a break point in the fourth set to get into his head, destroy his equilibrium and ultimately, cost him the match.
A match Andy was cruising in. A match in which he was a set and a break up before his customary second set mental lapse allowed Nishikori to break back. Then the rain intervened, the roof was shut and a rejuvenated Nishikori stole the set. Another set, another break for Murray, another gift back. This time Nishikori was the more generous one that kept on giving, and Murray was leading the match once more by 2 sets to 1. At this stage, the momentum should have been with Murray. At 1-1 in the fourth set, he had a break point on Nishikori’s serve. And then came Noise-gate. A great return by Murray put him in the ascendancy in the point when a loud bang from the court’s sound system lead the umpire to halt play and make the players replay the point. It was just one unfortunate call at a crucial moment, but rather than shrugging it off and getting on with the business of winning, Murray was furious and allowed the disruption to affect his game. He lost the break point, the game, and then his serve. Murray had gone awol and eventually lost the set 6-1. It was a depressing regression to the Andy of old: passive, self-flagellating, berating his box, losing his service rhythm.
Murray’s mental disintegration continued as he was broken in the opening game of the deciding set. However, the one thing about Andy Murray that has never been in any doubt is his fighting spirit. From down and nearly out, he kept restoring parity in the deciding fifth set, only to keep losing the initiative again through wretchedly poor serving.
Is it the poor serving that causes Andy to retreat into his shell, or his passive and negative mentality that leads to poor serving? Does being constantly on the back foot put too much pressure on his serve, or does unreliable serving lead to a fear of getting a good return and put him instantly in defensive mode? It’s a classic chicken and egg. Either way, his first serve fell apart when it mattered most and his second serve, which had supposedly improved, was back to being a weak non-entity that was treated with the disdain it deserved. In the end, Nishikori was given one chance too many, and at 6-5, he finally pulled the plug on Andy’s hopes of getting to all four Grand Slam finals in one year.
That’s not to take anything away from Kei Nishikori. He thoroughly deserved his victory. Although Andy had gift-wrapped the match with a pretty little bow, Nishikori still had to take his present. Which he did, in some style. For once, he didn’t wilt. He didn’t go away. He hung in there. He was brave, he was aggressive, he was tireless. He took what Andy gave him and then some. He was tactically smart, countering Andy’s passivity by constantly drop shotting him, or charging to the net and volleying like Stefan Edberg, or taking the ball early and adventurously going for a winner and making many more than he lost. Fortune favours the brave. Nishikori was braver, smarter and deadlier.
Sadly, the match sums up why Andy has won so few Grand Slams and why he will always be a good player but never a great one. He has all the talent in the world – he is arguably one of the most naturally gifted tennis players out there – but he lacks the mentality of a serial winner. The Big Three – Djokovic, Federer and Nadal – would have won the match in straight sets. Andy lacks their ruthlessness, their unrelenting focus, their mental resilience in shrugging off things that don’t go their way and their absolute confidence in their own powers. Worse, unlike them he doesn’t play to his strengths. Yes, his powers of retrieval are phenomenal, but he lacks the metronomically consistent depth of shot of a classic baseliner, and his offensive game is far, far better. Pity he rarely deploys it. Andy is the best volleyer in the world after Roger Federer yet it was Nishikori who spent much of the match at the net. At crucial moments it was he who dared to serve and volley even though it is Andy who is the better server and the better volleyer. Andy’s stubborn preference for defensive counter-punching at the expense of a more natural attacking all round game has cost him time and time again. It’s a frustratingly limited way of playing for one of the least limited players in tennis.
Hey ho. We will always have Wimbledon. After 77 barren years, to have a British two time men’s Wimbledon champion is a dream for British tennis fans. But it could have been, nay should have been, so, so much more. If only Andy had been able to change his mentality from playing not to lose to playing to win. To go for broke when he was up and had everything to lose rather than when he was down and had nothing to lose. Playing percentages has made him a top player, but playing aggressively could have made him a great one.