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Andy Murray: Solving The Final Puzzle

Sep 10, 2012 6 comments

The similarities are uncanny. It starts with their behavior. Both fellows love sarcasm, specially the dark self deprecating ones. Their on court behavior — while as different as night and sky — evoked much dislike among most people, while were a subject of fascination by the select few. Both possessed a style of play that was not received nicely during their respective times. Both had mental demons that to be relinquished in order to achieve the initial success. Both lost four major finals before finally breaking the ice.

While we would remember this as the breakthrough year for Andy Murray, it was also the year of gradual progress. As well as he played in ’10 and ’11, both his success and failures were expected. He did what he did best, and achieved results; he repeated what he did worst, and failed. But at Melbourne, it was the first time that his failure was not criticized. The only mistake he committed in the five hour, five set marathon against Novak Djokovic was to cool off in the fourth set, and that was partially because of physical fatigue, fighting against the fittest man on the tour. For the first time, he did not disappoint in a match of major significance ever since the mountain of expectations was thrown on his shoulders.

The progress continued at the grass season, when he won his first set in a major final. On his fourth try. Again, even though he lost, the loss was not considered a bad omen, because he played arguably his best match of the career, but was simply up against one of the greatest grass court player playing one of the finest match of his career. The common thing about the two losses was not only that he showed mental toughness and great play, but also the takeaways from these losses. After Wimbledon, he said “I am getting closer,” where as after losing to Roger Federer in ’10, he said, “I can cry like Roger, its a shame I can’t play like him.” The attitude had changed, the self belief was creeping in, and his game was no longer stagnant as it was in the previous two years.

He continued taking it one small step at a time. In Olympics, he finally registered his first significant win over the elite top-3 by defeating Novak Djokovic in the semis. It was still not the final, and it was still a best of three, and hence he made it better by defeating Federer on his home turf, in a best of five contest, and by which also securing a gold medal for his country. It was no Slam victory, but in itself, this was an achievement of highest magnitude. He believed. His country believed. From a person constantly under media scrutiny, he had become a national hero.

The continual progress took its final step at the final tennis junction of the calendar year. But it did not come easy. He struggled against the surprisingly consistent Feliciano Lopez, showed each and every trick of his artistic arsenal against Milos Raonic, was a bit lucky against Marin Cilic by winning after being a set and two breaks down. In the semifinal, he again showed his best by taking a leaf from Rafael Nadal — and his loss on a terribly windy day at Indian Wells — by committing less than 20 unforced errors on the windiest day ever at the Open. And yet, the struggle had not ended. It took him six set points to close out the first set, he failed to capitalize a two breaks lead in the second, before winning it through a Djokovic double fault and a botched overhead, threw the two sets lead due to fatigue, before finally saving his best in the set that mattered the most in the Open.

It was a remarkably tough ride for him, and it was his mentor — who struggled much like the mentee — who made him tough enough to handle the challenge. It is no coincidence that the start of Murray’s progress coincided with the addition of Lendl as his coach and he will be the first one to admit it. Sure, there are still times when Murray reverts back to his defensive shell, and others when he will feel yell and curse like the world is conspiring against him, but like the other members of top three, he has learned to deal with it and move on. The one who forever demands perfection, has learned that a perfect match is not where you do not commit mistakes — for it will happen rarely — but one where you do not let the imperfections affect you in the final outcome.

This was the puzzle that Murray had not solved yet, and it was the one which had kept the big three expanding into the fantastic four. And as this year has shown, the big three has finally made the credible transition to the fantastic four. Each of these members won a major this year, and not surprisingly, they won it on their favorite surfaces — Djokovic on slow hard courts, Nadal on clay, Federer on grass and Murray on fast hard courts. Isn’t it ironic that we are celebrating the opening up of men’s field at the same time when we are celebrating the consolidation of the women’s?

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Slowing It Down

Sep 3, 2012 2 comments

How can you break Milos ‘Missile’ Raonic? By trying to return his serve. How do you return his serve whose second ball lands faster than many’s first ball? By making the serve ‘seem’ slower. It is hard. Very hard. And Andy Murray did it perfectly. He did it by anticipating where Milos was going to hit the serve, and his impeccable returning skills only made the job easier. As Murray later told in his post match interview, he had played him before (he lost their only match played between them before this), and started to understand his serving patterns better. After three very easy holds from both men, Murray got the hang of Milos’s serve, and it was Murray all the way after that.

As the match progressed, Raonic’s thumping bombs seemed slower and slower even though he was still clocking them above 130. The only difference was that Murray was getting racket to almost eveyr serve. The thumping effect as the ball hits the advertising boards on an ace was reduced to a slow deep return or a wicked sliced return — this was how well Murray absorbed the pace of Raonic’s serve and neutralized his single most biggest weapon which is as devastating as the tennis world has seen.

It was not just Murray’s returning ability at show. It was a complete tennis master class once the ball came into play. He sliced and diced, moved Raonic from corner to corner, brought him forward on some seriously good drop shots — how many times have you seen a player hit a forehand sliced cross court drop shot? — and to top it off, hit shoe laced volleys to perfection when Milos challenged him at the net.

To Raonic’s credit, he was the complete opposite of Bernard Tomic in the third set. He gave it his all, but even when he tried to go on the offensive with his huge forehand, Murray came up with passing shots that only Djokovic, Nadal and himself can claim to conjure up. “Raonic could not have hit this volley any better except for hitting it right on the baseline,” was what an announcer said.

Murray owned Raonic and Ashe today. To such a degree that he did not face a single break point in the entire match and broke the Missile four times in twelve tries. A match that was hyped up as a heavy weight encounter was reduced to a one sided match, but an entertaining one. So entertaining that it even managed to bring smile to the normally poker faced Ivan Lendl late in the third set. Murray has faced a tricky draw in the Open with a tough match against Feliciano Lopez in the third round, but based on his performance today, he looks certain to set up a semifinal date with Roger Federer.