I’m an avid Murray watcher. When I say ‘watcher’ more often than not, I peek out from behind the back of the sofa, depending on the state of play or the importance of the point. That’s quite an admission given what I do for a living. It’s totally out of character; I watch my beloved football team and separate the objective from my bias, regardless of the importance of the occasion.
Anyone breaking into my house around 2am on 8th September would have witnessed a bizarre site, as I came ‘up for air’ every few seconds to see Kevin Anderson hammer down another monster serve to mentally batter his opponent into submission, in the US Open. I suspect I’m not alone.
There are two reasons for my curious behavior (well, three if you count ‘Dalek Replacement Theory’). Firstly, I have inexhaustible man-love for Murray. I’m not a nationalistic however I feel privileged to be around to see one of our country’s greatest ever sportsmen in his pomp. Growing up, I was in awe of Irvine, Law, Wells, Lyle and Dalglish; boyhood idols all. But what the curly haired one is doing is different league all together, he’s re-writing the history book of Scottish sport. Murray belongs on the top shelf of the world’s all-time great sportsmen alongside Eric Liddell. No matter that he’s still behind Djokovic and Federer in the world rankings – all three of them will by consigned to the same elevated status in what is a remarkable era for tennis
The other reason is Murray’s ‘talent versus mental vulnerability’ conundrum. It was visible at the beginning of his professional career and throughout his subsequent development. Then along came Lendl, masquerading as coach, but mentor and mindset guru in reality. Murray’s game strategy didn’t changed greatly under Lendl, it could well be argued that any improvements were attributable to a mix of continued physical development, maturity and improved efficacy. Vitally, the foundation from also-ran to champion was built on a developing a stronger mental state. The negative self-talk and deference to inappropriate cues vanished and with it, a surety and enhanced focus made him a tougher opponent. Even under intense pressure in the Wimbledon Final of 2013, his composure was remarkable, his game unwavering – only equaled by my own resolve not to hide behind the sofa. For once, I just knew he was going to win, I never flinched and nor did he.
In 2015, fully recovered from back surgery, I‘ve been mightily impressed by Murray’s level of fitness and he seems to have added, or at least is prepared to execute a few more shots. I would go as far as saying he is playing some of the best tennis of his career. Yet, there is something missing. Amateur golfers might say say his ‘pooper’ has gone, a humorous but accurate phrase – basically a lack of self-regulatory functioning under pressure.
What was noticeable throughout the US Open was his ability to maintain focus was noticeably lower than in the grand slam years. The damaging
self-talk had returned, a few expletives were evident and the body language was poor, often drudgingly walking between points. Other players pick up on such frailties and negative mindsets; Djokovic ‘played him’ in the Australian final by fawning injury, Anderson at the US by making Murray smoulder and burn while taking a ridiculously long toilet break. Where prey forage, there are predators ready to pounce on any chink of weakness.
The post-Lendl version of Murray, for all his talent, can again be ‘got at’.
Murray has outwardly been wary of sports psychologists, albeit he has occasionally dabbled. To Murray, Lendl was his mindset coach; someone he listened to, admired and possibly found occasionally threatening. No one other than Lendl has earned Murray’s respect to that end. He needs another Lendl, and fast, to secure the additional ‘slams’ his career richly deserves. Me? Unless there’s a change in the Murray camp, I’ll be back behind the sofa come Melbourne.