ETTINGER: Andy Murray in must-win situation

No one is more desperate for victory at the Australian Open than Britain’s Andy Murray.

After defeating Kei Nishikori in straight sets last night, the world No. 4 is set for a semifinal clash with top-seeded Novak Djokovic, the Serb on a seemingly unstoppable yearlong tear. The match will take place under the bright lights of Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena on Friday.

At stake for Murray, however, is much more than personal triumph. The 24-year-old Scotsman is burdened with the expectations of an entire nation desperate for a hero. Despite having invented the sport and dominated its early years, Britain has not boasted a men’s champion at a single Grand Slam tournament since 1936, when Fred Perry won the U.S. Championship. A full 75 years later, British tennis fervor is a heavy combination of embarrassment, impatience and ruthless expectation. These expectations can be heard from the wildly emotional crowds that fill the seats at Wimbledon each year. These expectations can be read in the mercilessly critical British sporting press. These expectations can be seen in the face of the Queen herself, who dutifully attends all major British matches. It is squarely on Murray, a youth tennis star who has emerged as Britain’s clear top player, that these expectations have fallen.

Needless to say, Murray has not handled the expectations well. Despite reaching nine career Grand Slam semifinals (including the last five in a row), the young star has yet to break through. It’s widely held that Murray has become consumed by his burden and has wilted under the pressure. During late rounds at Grand Slam tournaments, he has continually exhibited uncharacteristically defensive play and allowed his opponents to control the match. He has had problems with concentration: he exhibits short bouts of atrocious play at the most critical moments. He has shown an unsettling temperament during these matches by throwing tantrums directed at himself, coaches and even family members. Weighed down by the hopes of a nation, Murray is woefully uncomfortable on the big stage.

His track record in such matches is not promising. Murray has managed to reach the finals of a Grand Slam tournament three times in his career. In 2008, he advanced to the US Open finals but played a remarkably passive game and was smoked in straight sets by Roger Federer. Two years later, he faced Federer in the finals of the Australian Open. He managed a set point in the third but allowed Federer to take command en route to another straight sets loss. Murray reached the finals of the Australian Open for the second consecutive year in 2011, but he was once again obliterated in straight sets, this time by Novak Djokovic.

Beyond his mental woes, Murray is held back by the talent that sits above him. In order to win a title, he will have to play past at least one of Federer, Djokovic or Rafael Nadal. Federer and Nadal, with 16 (first all-time) and 10 (fourth all-time) Grand Slam titles, respectively, probably represent two of the five best players ever to take the court. Meanwhile, Djokovic is a 24-year-old wunderkind with four Grand Slam titles and is coming off of one of the most successful years in Open history. It’s possible that Murray simply doesn’t have the firepower to compete with these historic talents.

Weighed down by a nation’s expectations, a reputation for a troubled mental game and a trio of daunting contemporaries, no one is more desperate for victory at the Australian Open than Britain’s Andy Murray.

Despite the mountain of negativity surrounding his game, Murray has reason to be hopeful heading into Friday’s semifinal. The Scot had a spectacular end to 2011, with a match record of 25–1 since mid-August. After falling to Nadal in four sets in the US Open semis, Murray completed the “Asian hat-trick” — he won the PTT Thailand Open, the Rakuten Japan Open and the Shanghai Rolex Masters all in a row. These wins included victories over Nadal and the ever-tough David Ferrer. At one point, he moved past an ailing Roger Federer into the world No. 3 ranking. In 2011, Murray also reached all four Grand Slam semifinals, a feat of consistency equaled only by Djokovic.

In addition, Murray made a major change to his game at the start of the 2012 season. Over the New Year, he announced former world No. 1 and eight-time Grand Slam champion Ivan Lendl as his new full-time coach. Llendl had turned down at least 10 coaching offers from other players but agreed to help Murray because he was convinced he could help the Brit “get over the hump.” Lendl, like Murray, struggled in big matches early in his career and dropped his first four Grand Slam finals. Those close to Murray report that he trusts Lendl and heeds his advice in a way he hasn’t with previous coaches. Lendl is not afraid to be critical. Murray fully bought into Lendl’s criticisms and has allowed Lendl to take charge in the partnership.Together, the duo has focused on pushing Murray to be more aggressive. They have also developed specific strategies for playing against individual players such as Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

The early returns are promising. In the first rounds of the Australian Open, Murray has exhibited more aggressive play while maintaining surprising composure. He has dropped only one set in his five opening victories. Despite a disappointing 44 percent first-serve rate in his quarterfinal match, his big serve has played well thus far. Critics will point out, however, the Murray has had the softest schedule to the quarterfinals. He has faced no opponents ranked higher than 24. That will all change when he faces the world No. 1 Friday.

Murray and Djokovic have some history together. They have played 10 times, with Djokovic leading the series 6–4. However, of the seven matches they’ve played on hard surfaces, Murray holds a 4–3 career edge. The rivals played two of those matches last year. While Djokovic smoked Murray in the Australian Open finals, Murray dealt Djokovic one of only six losses last season in the finals of the Cincinnati Masters. While an injured Djokovic retired in the second set of that match, the recent win should provide Murray with some confidence heading into their latest meeting.

Should he find a way to upset the Serb, Murray would draw either Nadal or Federer in the finals. Nadal holds a 12–5 career advantage over Murray, although the two have split their eight hard-court matches 4–4. Two of those eight came last year, when Nadal defeated Murray in four sets at the US Open and Murray defeated Nadal in three sets at the Tokyo Open. Murray’s record against Federer is much stronger. The Scotsman has taken eight of 14 matches against the Swiss Legend, including five of seven on hard surfaces. The two haven’t faced off since 2010.

It will take a small miracle for Murray to end his country’s 75-year Grand Slam drought. He must rise up to Britain’s grand expectations and shake a reputation for wilting under pressure. He must learn to control his anger and maintain his composure at critical moments. He must also stay aggressive and play the best tennis of his career in order to get past the powerhouses waiting in the semis and the finals. No one, however, appears more desperate for victory at the Australian Open than Britain’s Andy Murray.

Comments

  • newsreader

    I appreciate how accessible you made this article to non-sports followers. I would even venture to label it as a real human interest piece.

    Also, this is great: http://twitter.com/andy_murray