Murray joins the elite

JAN 26 – Just how good is Andy Murray?

It’s a question that has long been debated, without a firm conclusion being reached. For a few years, it appeared that the Scotsman might have been destined to follow the same path as Tim Henman: clearly by far the best British tennis player, but not quite good enough to be classed amongst the world’s elite.

Murray’s task in breaking into that elusive world class bracket was made much more difficult by the unfortunate presence of three of the greatest players the game has ever seen: Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

Although Murray has always been good – very good indeed – he always fell short at the final hurdle, unable to haul himself up to match the astonishing standards set by the Holy Trinity in the tournaments that mattered the most.

After all, Murray won his first tournament on the senior tour way back in 2006 – so he has been around for a long time. He then reached his first Grand Slam final in 2008, losing to Federer in three sets in the US Open. Further final disappointments followed in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and none of those matches were even close. When it came to the crunch, Murray was nowhere near the level of the three giants above him.

With Djokovic hitting new heights and Federer enjoying a glorious resurgence, many people were wondering whether Murray would forever be forced to endure a frustrating career as the nearly man, the best player never to win a Grand Slam.

But in the last six months, Murray has turned that perception on his head and demonstrated that he will be capable of going toe to toe with Federer, Nadal and Djokovic for many years to come. Forget the Holy Trinity – soon we might have to start talking about the Fab Four.

Murray finally ended his long wait for a major in September by claiming the last Grand Slam of 2012, the US Open, defeating Djokovic in a five-set thriller. That was just after he’d won Olympic gold – not a Grand Slam, but a tournament of almost equal stature nevertheless.

And in the last couple of weeks he’s been at it again, charging his way to the semi-final of the Australian Open without breaking sweat. Throughout those early rounds, he looked a class apart from his opposition – none of whom were slouches – as he raced through game after game, match after match without dropping a single set along the way.

Yesterday presented an entirely different challenge as Murray took on Federer for a place in the final.

A year ago, it would have been the end of the line for Murray. As TV commentator Frew McMillan put it during yesterday’s match: “Federer used to bully Murray in these Grand Slam tournaments.” Not anymore.

In fact, during the first set the roles had been reversed and Murray was doing the bullying, exerting relentless pressure on the Swiss legend’s serve and refusing to give away any easy points. Murray ended up winning the first set 6-4, but in reality it was nowhere near as close as that.

Federer raised his game in the second set to take it on a tiebreak. That would have killed Murray in the past, but he’s made of tougher stuff now. Both players were performing at, or near, their peak, but Murray was ultimately good enough to prevail after five sets.

It was a mammoth effort between two equals and, whatever happens in Sunday’s final against Djokovic, it’s pretty clear that Murray is now right up there with the best.

So what has happened in the last year? What has allowed Murray to join the elite, rather than forever be stationed just below them?

I believe it’s all mental. He has always had the full range of shots and he’s always possessed astonishing athleticism, allowing himself to retrieve even the most hopeless of lost causes.

But now Murray has added a mental maturity and durability to his game that has allowed him to regard Federer as an equal rather than an unconquerable giant.

In the past, when things went wrong on the court – as they’re bound to during any tough match – it affected him. His shoulders would droop and he’d start muttering darkly to himself, throwing his racquet around and generally wearing the demeanour of a man who thought the whole world was against him.

That kind of attitude usually becomes self-fulfilling: if you think circumstances are conspiring against you, they will; if you think the other guy’s getting all the luck, he will. Focussing on the things you can’t control is a sure way of losing your rhythm, getting yourself out of ‘the zone’ that sportsmen seek to find.

A lack of mental toughness, mental consistency, was always Murray’s chief defect. Remember, though, that he was a young man – only 21 years old when he reached his first Grand Slam final. A little youthful petulance can be perfectly excused, but now the on-court tantrums have become pleasingly rare and a new-found genuine inner belief is palpable.

Some of the credit must go to Murray’s new coach, Ivan Lendl, whose time at the Scotsman’s side has coincided almost exactly with the improvement to his game.

But more than Lendl’s influence, the chief cause for Murray’s ascent is probably nothing more complicated than the simple natural process of maturing. Murray has grown from a boy into a man, and he’s now dining at the game’s top table.

He should stay there for many years to come.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.


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