What Andy Murray is capable of
October 10, 2011 · Print This Article
Wins in Thailand and Japan have shown that the Scot doesn’t lack the game to win majors. So what’s missing?
Andy Murray’s win in Japan on Sunday, pulverizing world No. 2 Rafael Nadal in the final, is not the proof we’ve been waiting for that he can win majors.
No, that proof already existed, and had been demonstrated on multiple occasions. Several times in just the last year, in fact.
There was last year’s Shanghai Masters, when Murray won the final, hammering Roger Federer in straight sets and breaking him four times. Or his June win in Queens, where he won the title, beating hard-serving Andy Roddick 6-3, 6-1 (on grass!) in the process.
Or, even in defeat against Nadal in Monte Carlo in the spring, where Murray won a 6-2 set against the Spaniard on the Nadal’s favored clay, and Murray’s worst surface. He couldn’t close that match out, but winning a set (and I reiterate, a 6-2 set!) in Monte Carlo was something no one had accomplished against Nadal in the previous year’s event.
Unfortunately, Murray has yet to duplicate such results in the Slams. It’s been speculated that Murray’s biggest problem in the majors is the defensive nature of his play, that he lacks the power on the forehand, and perhaps on the second serve, needed to overwhelm seven opponents in matches that are best-of-five, rather than best-of-three.
Having witnessed the Scot’s capabilities when he’s feeling comfortable, I have to say that I have little doubt as to whether or not he has the offensive capabilities to win Slams. Rather, it appears that he isn’t winning them but is absolutely tearing up the lower-tier events (Japan makes 20 titles total, including eight Master’s shields) because there aren’t as many people watching.
We all know Andy Murray is British, and that is nation hasn’t claimed a Slam win since Fred Perry far too many decades ago. The pressure of playing for the nation that invented the sport, but hasn’t had a major champion in so many years, has surely contributed to Murray’s lackluster performances on the big stage, and not just in the sense that it’s made him too timid.
Yes, he did play too passively in his first three major finals, allowing Federer (at the 2008 US Open and 2010 Australian) and Novak Djokovic (at this year’s AO) to dictate play. Murray’s counterpunching skills are extraordinary, perhaps the best in the sport, but defense does not win point after point in matches against the game’s best players. That periodic improbable get, that occasional point in which the opponent has to hit one too many overheads and finally shanks one; these are the junctures that break a match open and tilt it in favor of a counterpuncher, but are not what keeps him in the match to begin with.
Still, if it were as simple as Murray needing to play more aggressively on the big stages, surely he would have solved the problem by now. Sadly for Murray and his fans, that’s more or less what he tried in the Wimbledon semis this year, taking the first set from Nadal before becoming a bit too aggressive with an overhead, missing it long and handing the Spaniard an early break in the second.
From then on, it appeared Murray’s doubts were back at the front of his mind and Nadal rolled through the next three sets.
And yet I cannot stop believing in the Scot, no matter how many four-setters he drops to Nadal in Slam semis, or how many listless Slam finals he turns in. For one thing, he’s still improving as a player, as the only one other than Djokovic or Nadal to have reached the semis or better of all four majors this past year.
For another, his game may be the best matchup against Djokovic of all the top players; Federer and Nadal may have bigger forehands, but both have been clearly flummoxed by Djokovic’s forehand-backhand combination this year. Murray, however, pushed Djokovic to a third-set tiebreak in Rome (again, on clay, a surface Djokovic shows much more affinity for) and then beating him in Cincinnati.
That was one of only three losses the Serb has sustained this year. And yes, Djokovic did quit due to injury, but Murray was up a set and a break and just three games from winning. Djokovic had been struggling much of that week, and Murray was the only player to take advantage.
Plus, Murray is now on a two-tournament winning streak, having won in Thailand the week before Japan. His one-sided victory over Donald Young in Bangkok’s final got little attention, given that Young is only just evolving into a credible pro. After Sunday’s result, though, it looks all the more emphatic; after dropping set one to the Spaniard, Murray found a new level and suddenly Nadal had no more answers against him than Young.
But what is the key to unlocking that potential, if playing too tentatively won’t get the job done and neither will playing with too much aggression? Murray has to find the right balance, where he’s consistently imposing his will on the other player, but not going for too much.
Some coaching might help, as Murray has been without a full-time one for more than a year now. Gilbert himself took time to help Murray earlier in this career, but their personality clashes doomed that partnership early on. After losing Miles Maclagan and Alex Corretja in the past year and a half, it’d be easy to question just who Murray feels comfortable with, and who can take him to the next step in winning Slams.
That, unlike his game, still needs proving.