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Murray: Cometh The Hour

DEUCE

Murray© Andy MurrayAndy Murray will lead British hopes at the All England Club twice this summer, first at The Championships and then at the Olympics.

Can he? Will he? Won’t he? These are the questions that plague Andy Murray throughout the year, but never more so than during the four-week grass-court season. How will he answer them at Wimbledon?

Andy Murray stands on the observation deck of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building at 828 metres. He has just played head football with his strength and conditioning coach, Matt Little, and is preparing to speak to local TV stations to promote the upcoming Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.

The reporters will eventually ask Murray about his football skills, the breathtaking views from high above Dubai and how he spent his four weeks since the Australian Open. But the first thing they want to know? “Andy, what do you have to do to win a Grand Slam?”

It’s a question that Murray knows all too well.

“Andy’s managing to stay with them and stay ahead of the rest”

A month earlier, he had suffered a gut-wrenching semi-final defeat to World No. 1 Novak Djokovic in Melbourne. Murray had led by two-sets-to-one before the Serb triumphed 7-5 in the fifth, having played for four hours and 50 minutes. Two days later, Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal in a final that lasted five hours and 53 minutes. That is what Murray is up against.

Speaking to DEUCE at The Queen’s Club, Murray observes, “I think he was destined to win that tournament. To win that semi-final in five hours and then win the final in six hours was an incredible effort. So he deserved it.”

Between them, Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer have cleaned up at 31 of the past 32 majors. Only Juan Martin del Potro has managed to chink the armour, claiming the 2009 US Open title. Even then, he had to beat Nadal and Federer back-to-back. Consider, after American Webb Simpson’s win in the US Open golf major, Mardy Fish tweeted, “Last 9 major championships in golf 9 winners.. Last 9 in tennis, 2 winners. Interesting...”

Murray“They’ve turned into animals,” declares Ross Hutchins - close friends with Murray for more than 20 years and one half of Great Britain’s leading doubles team with Colin Fleming. “Physicality is crucial. You see the physique and build that these guys have. If it went 10 hours, they’d be able to last 10 hours. Anyone can get into good shape, but it’s the little things like being able to last when you’re out in the heat of Rod Laver Arena, withstanding a huge amount of pressure mentally and physically. It’s just incredible the sort of things we can only see from the outside."

 “It’s obviously a phenomenal level of tennis at the top right now,” adds Fleming. “They’ve taken the sport to a new level in the past three or four years and Andy’s managing to stay with them and stay ahead of the rest. He’s been No. 4 for a while, flirted with No. 3 and No. 2 in the world. He’s right there.”

Murray has long been an advocate that being in peak physical condition is the only way to reach the top in tennis. For four and a half years, the Dunblane native has worked with a specific fitness team: strength and conditioning coaches, Matt Little and Jez Green, and physiotherapist Andy Ireland, transforming him from the skinny teenager who cramped in a five-set defeat to David Nalbandian on his Wimbledon Centre Court debut in 2005 to one of the fittest players on tour.

“A lot of the guys are extremely fit. It can make a difference in matches, for sure,” says Murray. “I can’t speak for the other players, but it’s something I’ve always tried to take seriously, in the past few years especially. When I first came on the tour at 18, it was something that I needed to work on a lot. I’d been growing a lot and I wasn’t able to do much or I would have picked up injuries. Once I started to fill out a little bit and grow into my body, it’s something I’ve taken very seriously.”

“Better players than me lose Grand Slam finals”

“When you practise with Andy, you know you have to be ready for it,” explains Fleming. “He’s obviously a phenomenal player and he hits the ball a lot heavier than we would be used to day in and day out. His fitness is phenomenal. His intensity with everything he does when he trains is great and that’s why you have to be really ready to get the most out of the workout.”

“The strength in depth in the game is so strong,” continues Murray. “If you just watch it, compared to 15-20 years ago, the speed of the game, how well everybody’s moving. A lot of people talk about the technology of the game. But it’s nothing to do with the technology. It’s down to better athletes; people working harder, understanding how to train better. Guys are getting bigger all the time; when you look at previous years that wasn’t the case. It’s impossible to win now unless you’re in great physical shape. That’s why you see very few young players breaking through.”

Murray introduced former World No. 1 Ivan Lendl to his team this season in a bid to close the gap on the Top 3 and find the way to win his first major trophy, a goal that “Andy strives for every day, to get over that line and win a Slam,” according to Fleming. For Tim Henman, former World No. 4 and a four-time semi-finalist at Wimbledon, the effects were immediate.

Murray“Right off the bat in Australia I thought he played fantastically well,” says Henman. “I think that was probably some of the best tennis I’ve ever seen him play. Also it was his body language and temperament on the court that I thought was so impressive. I’ve said on numerous occasions, for me, his biggest challenge is dealing with adversity.

“When you look at him when he’s playing well and everything’s going well, then he’s very difficult to beat because he’s one of the best players in the world. He’s beaten all the top players in the world. For me, the challenge is when it’s not going quite so well, and he’s perhaps not getting the rub of the green, that’s when sometimes he can get frustrated and a little bit distracted from his game plan and his match.”

Lendl had a long wait for his major breakthrough, turning round a two-set deficit to beat John McEnroe in the 1984 Roland Garros final, when he was 24 years old. It was to be the first of eight major singles titles for Lendl, and Murray hopes the Czech-born American can help make the difference for him.

Murray has competed in three Grand Slam finals and failed to win even a set, falling to Federer at the 2008 US Open and the 2010 Australian Open and to Djokovic in the 2011 Melbourne final. His efforts in extending Djokovic to five sets in Australia this year impressed many, but still were not enough.

“There’s a desperation for success at those tournaments”

“I always try to stay positive,” explains Murray. “It’s not the easiest thing to take at the time. Better players than me lose Grand Slam finals. You have to find a way of coming back from it. That’s really the only thing you can do. If you think about it for a long period, it’s not any good for your game.

“If you’re a better player than somebody else, you’re going to win against them in the big matches over five sets. It’s very rare you win a five-set match and get lucky. My match with Djokovic in Australia came down to one or two points in the end, and the final as well. The differences can be so, so small.

“[Lendl] having been through a lot of the same things that I’ve been through at the start of my career is obviously going to be beneficial and something I can speak to him about. He knows how to prepare for big events. He understands the mental side, the tactical side, the physical side.”

MurrayAs well as a strong physique and coaching set-up, Murray is also in possession of an iron will and great strength of character. Over the next fortnight, everything in the Scot’s life will come under scrutiny. His girlfriend, Kim Sears, has graced the front cover of many national newspapers. Even his Border terrier dogs, Maggie and Rusty, have warranted column inches in the past.

He spends a few hours satisfying media requirements with worldwide print, radio and broadcast publications in the week leading up the The Championships. At least 45 minutes of his time is demanded by the press after each of his matches during the tournament, including TV studio interviews.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited Wimbledon for the first time since 1977 to witness Murray’s second-round win over Jarkko Nieminen in 2010, while the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge were present a year later to see Murray overcome Richard Gasquet in the fourth round.

The media spotlight is intense for Murray at Wimbledon. Far from ignoring it, though, he excels in it. He has reached the semi-finals at The All England Club three times. “I think just expecting a lot from yourself is important,” he says. “I think if you don’t, if you expect nothing, you’re not going to perform that well. Especially if something goes wrong in a match, if you’re expecting to win and you go behind, you find ways to come through.”

Key also for Murray is the unity and closeness of his trusted team.

“At the end of the day, pressure’s all self-inflicted”

“Andy’s very close to his team,” explains Hutchins. “The guys know how to act around him. If something’s bothering him, he’s not going to hold it in and think, ‘I can’t tell these guys that because I don’t know them well enough,’ because he does. They’re very close people to him and they know what’s best.

“Everyone in his team wants what’s best for him and I think that that is a huge part of it. I think when you see all the great players of the past and present, everyone has that same mentality, where they know how to really peak at the Slams. There’s a desperation for success at those tournaments.”

“There’s a lot of questions asked over really the next four weeks and probably more now with the Olympics coming up,” says Murray. “It’s going to be really busy so you’ve just got to make sure you block all of that out. It’s part of your job to deal with it. Listen to the people you have around you when you need advice. Sometimes you need to be told what to do; sometimes you need to have people to give you confidence. They’re the people that you turn to, not the people asking the questions in the press.”

MurrayHenman is one of few players able to identify with the expectations resting on Murray’s shoulders during the grass-court season. “I think it’s very important how you handle pressure,” he says. “At the end of the day, pressure’s all self-inflicted. When I say that, I mean that really, it’s only what your mind tells you.

“At Wimbledon, it’s the best. It’s the best court in the world, the most famous court in the world in the greatest tournament in the world. If you can’t get excited and you can’t enjoy that, then it’s time to look for another job. I never felt any pressure because I was in the right frame of mind and I was looking forward to it so much. I think Andy Murray is the same.”

Murray won’t open the sports section of a newspaper. He won’t listen to the experts speculate on the television. He will simply take it one match at a time and not dwell on previous disappointments. 

“When you’re in the middle of it all and in the middle of the tournament, you just know that as a professional you can’t take your eye off the ball,” says Henman. “There’s no point in thinking back to what’s happened in the past, and there’s certainly no point in thinking towards the future. If you’re distracted from what you’re doing then you’re going to come unstuck.”

“I think if he wins one, he’ll win three or four”

One thing Murray’s supporters are certain of is that it’s a case of when, not if, Murray will succeed at a major. Henman points to the transformation of Djokovic, who narrowly missed out on becoming the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four major titles at once when he lost to Nadal in the Roland Garros final.

“Djokovic was the one that was the semi-finalist and constantly No. 3 or 4 in the world. If you’d have said, in 18 months time he would have the chance to win four Slams in a row, I think I would have said you needed your head checked. That’s just how quickly things can turn around.

“Murray has been unbelievably consistent. He’s got to keep doing the right things, keep working at his game. If he does that and gets a bit of luck at the right time, there’s no doubt he can win a Grand Slam at some stage. I think if he wins one, he’ll win three or four.”

Hutchins concurs, “He’s right in amongst every Slam and for me; it’s just a matter of time. We all know he’s good enough and we all hope that he can do it.” Were he to succeed, never would the questions have been so satisfyingly silenced.

Watch Henman play at the Statoil Masters

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