Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - "Scot of Potential"
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"Scot of Potential" 09/12/2008 - 2:08 PM

AmNow that Andy Murray has made his presence felt at the game's highest level, it seems as good a time as any to revisit an article I wrote for TENNIS Magazine about him last year. I'm happy to say that this piece, "Scot of Potential," won first prize for a Pro Feature in the annual U.S. Tennis Writers' Association Awards, which were presented at the U.S. Open last week.

It was written as part of a 2007 Wimbledon preview issue and speculated about his chances in that event. Unfortunately, Murray hurt his wrist about a week before it went to print and eventually had to pull out of the tournament. Since then, he's split with a coach, Brad Gilbert, and had success with a new team. In the last year, and particularly since Wimbledon in June, Murray has come into his own as a player. As you'll see, he's already a different person from the one described in this article.

A stroll through the practice grounds at a pro tournament is an eye-opening experience for any tennis fan. You’ll find Rafael Nadal in a trance-like state, hammering one ball after another into the corners. On another court, Marat Safin, at peace for the moment, will casually rifle the cleanest strokes you’ve ever seen. A few feet down you might catch Roger Federer inventing new shots on the fly.

So it went this spring as fans perused the Indian Wells Tennis Garden onemorning during the Pacific Life Open. At the far end of the practice area, they came across a puzzling scene. Serbia’s teenage prodigy, Novak Djokovic, was warming up with someone—a tall, thin kid with freshly buzzed, rust-colored hair. The mystery man didn’t look like most of today’s ultra-athletic pros. He hunched his shoulders, planted his feet, and caressed his two-handed backhand rather than belting it, and he almost hobbled when he was forced to gather the balls. Every miss resulted in a slurred grumble and mumble, which grew louder as the warm-up continued. Finally, after sending a backhand into the bottom of the net, he let out a long moan of disgust in a thick Scottish accent: “Ahn-deee, yuuuk!” It was clear at last to everyone: “That’s Andy Murray!” The haircut had been enough to render him anonymous to the American crowd.

If only Murray could hide that easily in his native Great Britain. It’s going to take a lot more than a new hairdo to throw his countrymen off his trail at Wimbledon this summer. The 20-year-old, who cracked the Top 10 for the first time in April, has officially inherited the burden of a nation’s expectations from his long-suffering predecessor, Tim Henman.

“You’re under the microscope all the time there,” says Murray’s coach, Brad Gilbert. “The bad thing is that everyone wants to know what the timetable is. ‘When’s he’s going to be ready? When’s he going to win it?’ And having a timetable is about the worst thing you can do.”

U.S. tennis fans, who like to forecast the collapse of our tennis fortunes every six months or so, should have a little sympathy. Since 1977, American singles players have won 30 U.S. Opens; since Virginia Wade’s All England title in ’77, the U.K. hasn’t produced one Wimbledon finalist, let alone a champion. The pressure may be worse than usual this year. With David Beckham in exile, Murray is one of the few bright spots in any British sport. In January, the Sunday Times, one of the many U.K. papers that tracks Murray’s every move across the globe, began an op-ed titled “Murray Shines in Dull Days” with some quintessentially backhanded English praise: “When it was seriously suggested last week that Andy Murray is now British sport’s brightest star, a sense of embarrassment lurked in the realization that the claim could not be instantly ridiculed.”

With support like that, who needs doubters? Perhaps it’s not surprising that Murray has an ambivalent relationship with his home country, and in particular with its most prestigious tennis tournament. He acknowledges that if he won Wimbledon, it “would be one of the great sporting occasions in Britain in the last 50 or 100 years.” Then, in the next breath, he says, “if I had to pick one [Grand Slam] to win tomorrow, I’d pick the U.S. Open.”

Murray says he loves America, that the energy suits his personality. Virtually all of his career milestones—his biggest junior wins, his first pro title, his upset of Roger Federer last year—have occurred in the U.S. As Gilbert says, “He can fly a little under the radar here.” The question for this month is whether Murray can win while flying squarely into the center of the radar at the All England Club. Henman—dry, diffident, highly English—never thrived there. But Murray, as he’s pointed out to more than one clueless U.S. reporter in the past, is not a highly English young man. He’s Scottish.

If there’s a word that defines Murray’s rise, it’s unlikely. That begins with his origins. Scotland, with its rampant foul weather, hasn’t produced a player of note in the Open era. “Andy and I like the U.S.,” says Murray’s older brother, Jamie, a professional doubles player. “It’s got a lot of sun, pretty much the opposite of Scotland.”

The Murrays aren’t natives of just any Scottish town. They’re from Dunblane, a name that has the same resonance in the U.K. that “Columbine” does here. It made international headlines on March 13, 1996, when a deranged former scoutmaster walked into an elementary school and shot 16 children and a teacher dead. Andy, who was 8 at the time, hid in the headmaster’s office. He doesn’t talk about the incident these days, but in 2004 he told the Glasgow Herald, “For months afterwards we didn’t feel comfortable walking the streets. We would be looking behind us wherever we went. . . . It was only about four or five years later that I finally got to grips with the scale of what happened.”

Ironically, the area was not a bad place for a tennis player to develop, according to Jamie, mainly because it was at least possible to play all year round there. “We were lucky because there were two indoor courts nearby at Stirling University.”

Just as important, Judy Murray, Andy and Jamie’s mother, is a tennis instructor who introduced her sons to the sport early and coached them into their teens. “She’s really good with kids,” Jamie says. “She’s very good at teaching technique on ground strokes.”

Andy rose to international prominence as a junior alongside future Top Tenners Rafael Nadal and Djokovic, and he quickly became a highly touted prospect in Britain. Judy, who now writes a regular column about her son for the Daily Telegraph (when Mom’s commenting about you in the press, you know the pressure is on), says Murray made a fateful decision about his future after playing racquetball with Nadal at a junior tournament in Andorra. “Andy had been quizzing Rafa about his training and discovered that [he] practiced with Carlos Moya on red-clay courts in Mallorca,” Judy wrote in January. “I think it dawned on Andy that if he wanted to challenge the world’s best he would need a more competitive environment than could be found in Scotland.”

Murray wasted no time making the leap to Spain and its sunny, red-clay tennis culture; he left for the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Barcelona at 15. Emilio Sanchez, the academy’s founder and a former Top 10 player, says Murray was a popular student. “He was a pretty easy, calm guy. There was already a lot of pressure on him in Britain, so it helped him to be in Spain.”

Sanchez wasn’t all that impressed by Murray at first. “He was very thin and not powerful,” he says. “He was like a lot of talented kids; he wasn’t a very hard worker and relied a lot on his natural skill.”

Sanchez changed his tune after stepping on a court with Murray. “When I pressed him with a strong shot, he answered with purpose,” Sanchez says. “He was a great retriever, and I could see possibilities in his backhand. Afterward, I told everyone he was going to be very good. We needed to make him more professional, and he became a harder worker and a role model for our other kids.”

As for Murray, working out on clay, hard, and grass courts against strong competition at Sanchez-Casal encouraged him to develop a versatile game based on point construction rather than power. “When you’re practicing against guys who are really consistent, you have to find three or four ways to win points, and not just with your serve,” Murray said.

Sanchez thinks this sets Murray apart. “Everybody plays the same now,” he says. “That helps Andy because he doesn’t play the same. He can do different things like slice and then hit for power, or come to net, or retrieve and hit on the run. Other guys don’t know what to do with all that. Did you see his match against Nadal at the Australian Open?”

The question might as well have been rhetorical—everyone saw Murray take his old racquetball partner to five sets in a night-session classic in Melbourne in January. While Murray’s win over Federer in Cincinnati last summer made the sporting public take notice, it was his loss to Nadal that had tennis aficionados buzzing. The mix of touch, placement, serving power, and surprising shot selection that Murray used to bamboozle the world No. 2 for much of the evening seemed to come from a different era, before one-dimensional power-baseline tennis was the rule.

The man behind Murray’s plan that night was his coach, Gilbert, a longtime master of finding and exploiting opponents’ weaknesses. He and Murray have made a strong team since hooking up last July. Murray has improved his ranking from No. 35 to No. 10, beaten Top 5 players like Federer, Nikolay Davydenko, and Andy Roddick, and, most important, become a consistent winner. At first glance, the pairing looked like a personality train wreck—Murray is dour and muffled; Gilbert is a world-class chatterbox. And if you were to judge their relationship on their interaction during matches, you might conclude that it is, well, a bit strained. Communication between them consists primarily of Murray staring at Gilbert in the stands and berating him when his tactics don’t work.

Appearances aside, they've forged a solid coach-player partnership thus far. Murray has always had a rare talent, but during his first two years on tour he lacked the motivation and belief to bring his best week after week. Gilbert, as Murray has learned, supplies motivation virtually 24/7.

“He gets up early,” said Murray, who tells Gilbert to try to ignore his on-court rants. “Brad’s always on good form. He’s probably the most positive guy I’ve ever met. In that respect, he’s helped me a lot.”

Gilbert has dubbed Murray “Junior,” and says, “He’s way mellower off the court than he is on it. But he’s competitive, even at video games. He wants to get better at everything.”

Murray’s taste for competition can run to the violent. His favorite spectator sport is boxing. Asked his opinion of the infamous head-butt by France’s Zinédine Zidane in the 2006 World Cup final, Murray told the Independent, “I was a bit disappointed he didn’t head-butt [his opponent] on the nose. . . . It was going to be Zidane’s last match anyway, so why just head-butt him in the chest?” This sentiment may be less surprising to the average Scotland native, where a head-butt is sometimes known as a “Glasgow kiss.”

When tennis observers like Emilio Sanchez describe today’s players as cookie-cutter baseliners, they’re referring to a style of play partly originated by Brad Gilbert. He helped Andre Agassi win multiple
majors with a grinding blend of offense and defense, a game that was widely copied. The sport’s current upper echelon is filled with descendants of Agassi such as Davydenko, Djokovic, Marcos Baghdatis, and David Nalbandian. They all have well-rounded games, versatile two-handed backhands, and strong but not monstrous serves.

As every old-school tennis fan knows, this style doesn’t encourage individuality. It’s been a long time since someone as idiosyncratic as John McEnroe has had success at the top. That’s where many people hope Murray comes in. If there’s a past champion the Scot resembles, it may be the early-1980s version of McEnroe.

There’s the wild, reddish hair, fair skin, and less-than-musclebound body. And then there are the outbursts of visceral anger. Murray has yet to make his meltdowns as memorable as McEnroe’s; so far they’ve been notable mainly for the intensity of their gloom. At one point during Murray’s practice session with Djokovic at Indian Wells, Gilbert drew himself up and barked, “I want 15 good minutes of work against this guy!” Murray, who had been playing poorly for most of the hour, hit his next three backhand returns 10 feet past the baseline. He hung his head as he trudged from the deuce court to the ad court and began to slowly chant in a low voice: “Best . . . part . . . of . . . your . . . game . . . down . . . the . . . toilet,” over and over. Gilbert stared at the sky and sighed. It seems Murray hasn’t learned everything about American-style positive energy just yet.

McEnroe’s and Murray’s perfectionism is a byproduct of their unique talent. But where McEnroe’s genius was for aggression, both tactically and emotionally, Murray’s is for the counter-punch. His return of serve is already one of the best in the game—in Cincinnati last year, he broke Federer seven times. Rather than pummeling the ball to the corners, Murray designs points. In another echo of Johnny Mac, his hands are so sure that he can decide at the last second whether to slice his backhand and let the point come to him, or drive it and use his speed to sneak in and knock off a volley. To Gilbert’s chagrin, Murray loves the drop shot, and he says he likes to run during rallies. Nowhere is that more evident than when he tracks down a forehand on the move and, after playing passively for an entire point, suddenly drills the ball deep at his stunned opponent.

“He almost tries to bait you into coming in,” says Andy Roddick, who’s 2-4 against Murray, “and he almost likes being approached on. It’s kind of a backwards match from a lot of matches you play.”

Can this subtlety survive in today’s power game? It has its drawbacks. Murray’s weakness has been closing out sets on his serve, and without an all-powerful weapon he runs the risk of letting his opponents hit their way back into matches. It’s no accident that the world’s best players, Federer and Nadal, have perhaps the two most dangerous forehands in the game.

Gilbert has focused his attention on making Murray stronger and fitter—he’s even had him work out with gold-medal sprinter Michael Johnson. Practicing in Indian Wells, Gilbert repeatedly tried to get Murray to follow up a first serve with a penetrating forehand, rather than retreating and letting his opponent into the rally, which is often Murray’s natural inclination. “We want to beef up every part of his game and get him bigger and stronger, that’s the goal,” Gilbert says.

Still, the game’s greats like what they see. Bjorn Borg has said he thinks Murray could be a future No. 1; Jimmy Connors said “the sky’s the limit” when he watched Murray at Wimbledon in 2005; Nadal thinks he’s a threat to win each of the Grand Slams.

That’s all well and good, a British tennis fan might say, but when’s he going to bring home the one that counts? Gilbert, for one, likes Murray’s chances at Wimbledon. “The key on grass now isn’t the serve,” he says, “it’s how well you move, and Andy does that about as well as anyone.”

Murray, the Scot who moved to Spain who loves America, may have just enough distance from the English public and press to survive the annual crush of expectations. Gilbert says, “I tell him, ‘You don’t need to worry about all that as much as you do the guy on the other side of the net. That guy cares a lot more than anyone in the audience.’”

Few observers, even in England, seriously expect Murray to dethrone four-time defending champion Roger Federer in 2007. For tennis lovers, watching Murray’s unlikely game is reward enough. At a time when most of the men have found a similarly safe and solid style of play, Murray has managed to make the sport interesting.


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