You might not love Andy Murray’s attitude or his mouth. You might not love his forehand or his slump-shouldered walk. You might not love his sometimes-passive style of play or the way he gets crabby at 30-all in the first game. You might think he kvetches a little too much about all of the oversize checks he gets to take home. You might be skeptical that Murray, who, after his win in Shanghai has eight Masters titles and zero majors, can get it done when the pressure is undeniably on.
You’d have a reason to think all of these things; with his skills, the lack of a Slam title will always be what’s mentioned first about Murray, rather than anything that he has won. But after his latest fall surge, which followed yet another bitter Slam defeat, at the U.S. Open, you’d also have to admit that the guy keeps giving us a reason to watch him, write about him, enjoy what he can do on a tennis court, and, yes, believing in him. Murray is less renowned than Rafael Nadal or David Ferrer for his persistence and ability to bounce back, but his career is proving to be, among other things, one of great resilience.
Murray, as you probably know by now, just completed an Asian-swing hat trick, winning in consecutive weeks in Bangkok, Tokyo, and at the biggest tournament of the three, the Shanghai Rolex Masters. He didn’t do it smoothly, like Roger Federer. He didn’t do it with rousing passion, like Rafael Nadal. He didn’t do it with athletic precision, like Novak Djokovic. He didn’t even change his much-maligned attitude or playing style a whole lot. This was a purely Murray-esque win, with anxious misses, ill-advised tantrums, and rectangular-lipped roars intact. And that might be the best thing about it.
“I was really happy with the way I focused,” Murray said after beating David Ferrer in a half-ragged but mostly convincing 7-5, 6-4 final. “It’s hard to explain. It’s almost as if you’d think the more matches you win, the less pressure you feel. I was hitting the ball well, but there’s still a little bit of tension because you want to try and keep the run going. . . . I wasn’t necessarily playing my best tennis the whole way throughout, but I served well when I needed to and I chased the ball down.”
In other words, Murray made the best of what he had. He won even after he gave back breaks of serve at the start of both sets. He beat a fellow grinder while only coming to the net 10 times. When he could, Murray went hard to Ferrer’s forehand and opened up the point from there, but when he got behind in rallies, he still made Ferrer finish the point. The Spaniard often couldn’t do it.
Murray has beaten Ferrer four straight times on hard courts, and it’s a good matchup for him. He can defend like Ferrer, but he has a little more versatility on offense. Still, Murray could never break free today. He let Ferrer off the hook at 3-1 and 4-2 in the second set, and he needed two aces to save himself at 4-3. In the end, he relied on a possibly weary and slightly off form Ferrer to help him along.
“This week I think overall it’s satisfying,” Murray said. “I didn’t necessarily feel like I played amazing tennis, I just did the right things, made it very difficult for my opponents, and won a tournament of this size when I still felt like I could have played a little bit better.”
No one knows his own game like Murray, and he described it to a T when he said he “made it very difficult for his opponents.” Now that the hat trick is complete, we move on to the next question: What did it mean? Did it mean, for example, more than his win in Shanghai last year? Did Murray show anything more than what he’s always shown, an ability to make life difficult for his opponents? I think there are two positives to take away.
First, his serve and his forehand. The serve will come and go, but it’s getting him out of more holes than it once did. As for the forehand, he went after it the way many of us have wanted him to go after it against Nadal in Tokyo, and he was rewarded for it in the end. Murray never matched that level of aggressiveness in Shanghai, but he was still committed to trying to dictate with his forehand.
Second, his mental approach. Murray said he felt, paradoxically, more pressure as the wins built up, and he showed it in the quarters, the semis, and the final with his hair-trigger temper. This time, though, he fought off his own negativity with shows of positive emotion. More important, belying his perfectionist’s style, he put the screw-ups behind him and won anyway.
Maybe this is all just another false alarm and Murray will come crashing back to earth when he faces Djokovic, Nadal, or Federer in the later rounds at the World Tour Finals and the Australian Open. Maybe we’ll keep hearing those guys reassure the world, after they’ve beaten him, that Andy will win the big one someday, don’t worry, he’s too good not to. Even if that does happen again, it’s time to give Murray his due as a fighter in his own right, and a player who brings a unique personality and approach to the sport. Murray doesn’t win with Federer’s smoothness or Djokovic’s precise athleticism, but no one else leans into a backhand quite like he does or hits a perfect running forehand crosscourt pass every single time.
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What’s frustrating for me is the sense that Murray still hasn’t shown us all he can do. I can’t remember the exact match, but early in Shanghai he was, very briefly, completely at his ease on court. For a few minutes, it seemed that he could do anything with the ball, and he wasn’t hiding his cockiness about it. He curled his shots this way and that, cut under the ball with more slice than needed, carved volleys at unnecessary angles, came in on nothing and made it work because of his anticipation, and generally played circles around his opponent. It was like watching Dolgopolov, except that it all made sense. It was really more like watching Federer in “full flight.” Murray can do it all, and his full flight could soar as high as Federer’s. But it’s unlikely he’ll ever be relaxed enough to get up there for very long. In the meantime, if the forehand keeps getting punchier, and he can keep putting the bad moments behind him, he may not need to get all the way up there to win a major.
But before we start Slamming Murray again, it’s worth noting that he hasn’t let all of those tough losses crush his ornery, methodical spirit. (And it’s not like they don’t affect him deeply. We’ve seen him go into emotional tailspins after his last two Aussie Open losses before eventually digging himself out.) Murray claims he’s had a terrible career at the majors, but that only covers eight weeks of the year. Those of us who love the sport watch it the other 40-some weeks as well. And those of who love the sport, for its subtle shot-making and emotional violence, should be glad that Andy Murray is still coming back for more of both.
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