Like probably millions of others, I spent a couple of hours yesterday morning flicking through the Sunday papers whilst tuned to BBC1, watching Andy Murray’s enthralling but ultimately futile attempt to win the 2015 Australian Open.
In truth, Murray’s loss in four sets – ending with him conceding the last nine games on the trot – was just one more humiliation at the hands and tennis brilliance of the Serbian Novak Djokovic. There is much said and written and said about the quality of the men’s game in the modern era – viz. the years of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray and now various youngsters coming up the ranks to challenge – but regrettably Murray’s undoubted place in the all-time history of the game now seems consigned to joining the long list of tennis ‘nearly men’.
Andy doesn’t need to be apologetic about this. He was gifted with an enormous talent and has worked extremely hard to make the most of it against all the odds, not least the inadequacies of the British tennis development system which caused him to quit and move to Spain as a youngster in search of his goals.
However, the facts surely speak for themselves. Murray and Djokovic are both 27, going on 28 this May (Murray is exactly one week older). Andy has won 31 career titles so far, including two Majors, and been a losing Major finalist six times. Djokovic has won 49 career titles so far, including eight Majors, and been ranked No 1 in the world in the ATP list for a total of 130 weeks.
It is Murray’s cross to bear that Novak Djokovic is the better player.
There has been plenty of media discussion since yesterday about the implications of Murray’s supposed implosion in Melbourne. On Radio Five Live today there has been a sports ‘shrink’ pontificating that the re-emergence of Murray’s ‘bad’ (petulant) side, and his inability to control it, is the root of his problem: he loses his focus and concentration, his mind goes ‘walkabout’ and – despite all efforts by him and his coaches to help him retain mental control – it has a fundamentally negative effect upon his game.
Personally, I don’t buy that line. John McEnroe was famously petulant, of course, but he turned his ‘the world’s against me’ inner (but often publicly revealed) rage into a positive thing. It drove him on.
In contrast, although Murray can sometimes use his version of the ‘black dog’ to his advantage – over time the British public has gradually accepted his cussedness as something that perhaps ‘comes with the territory’ of his continuing struggle to improve himself as an elite player – more often than not it tends to hasten his downfall in a particular match, as happened yesterday.
I think it’s borne of frustration at the realisation that – no matter how hard he works to improve his technique, fitness, strength, and mental strength … no matter whomever he might employ as his coach and support staff … no matter what guru, or system, or training regime he adopts … no matter how many different preparation routines he tries … at the end of the day, there are always going to be two or three guys in the world he is going to come across on court who – everything else being equal – are going to beat him.
Murray’s coach Amelie Mauresmo has been doing her best to put a positive gloss upon his defeat, at the same time admitting that there are improvements still to be made.The bald truth is, I’m afraid, is that she’s right … but that sadly Andy Murray doesn’t possess the wherewithal to make them.
He’s one of perhaps the thirty greatest male tennis players to have ever graced the game, but his lot in life is not to be a great deal further up the list than that.
It’s one of life’s biggest ironies and conundrums, isn’t it?
You’re blessed with consummate abilities, you work as hard as you possibly can, and at some point you realise that you’re never going to attain your ultimate goal – recognition as the greatest exponent of your type of talent in the world.
What do you then do? Somewhere between the age of 23 and 29, whether you wish it or not, you have to start accepting that cold, hard fact.
The trouble is that – once you accept it – remaining on the tennis circuit, playing tournament after tournament, travelling the world, playing in the Majors, doing all the publicity things, making great money eventually becomes a chore.
[Just for a moment let’s give Murray, and those like him, some credit and leave the money side of things out of it – obviously even the ‘top ten, but no higher’ elite tennis players make tens of millions of dollars every year].
However, when all the time you know that you’re never going to get any better, or get any higher, at some point you begin giving up.
And, of course, when that fateful day eventually comes, every top sportsman has to spend a long time retired.