The stony-faced Scot has an abundance of talent, but so far an inability to convert it into Grand Slam victories. As he prepares for another assault on Wimbledon, Tim Adams asks whether we will see the greatest British tennis player since Fred Perry go to pieces again — or if there is still time for a late rally.
The latest research into the science of body language suggests that 90 per cent of all human communication is non-verbal. For anyone who has watched Andy Murray play tennis this year, that figure seems like a ridiculous underestimation. Rarely is the idea of being “out of sorts” given more physical articulation than when Britain’s undisputed number one makes his way to the service line.
Murray has always looked, on court, like he is plagued by a combination of wicked indigestion, a thumping hangover and the kind of despair at the human condition that made Franz Kafka imagine that he had woken up as a cockroach. But of late he appears to have added an extra level of discomfort to this mix. When preparing to receive, he has the air of a man expectant of not just a sliced service, but of all the degradation that the universe can dump on him. John McEnroe, often a similarly disaffected figure on court, once yelled to a packed crowd: “I’m so disgusting you shouldn’t watch, everybody leave!” Murray’s every gesture has seemed to suggest something along the same lines.
The mood appeared to set in at the beginning of the second set of his defeat to Novak Djokovic in the final of the Australian Open in January. Having made a game of the early part of the match against the clearly inspired Serb, Murray seemed suddenly to absent himself from the Rod Laver Arena, to wish he was anywhere but there. In going 0–5 down in the second set with a series of weirdly awkward errors, he appeared to have stumbled heavy-legged into a sort of overwhelming psychological negativity. While Djokovic apparently had pure testosterone pumping in his veins, Murray looked in desperate need of a Red Bull or three.
Neurobiologists have a name for the condition that Murray found himself in during that 20-minute period: “learned helplessness”. The term describes that state of mind, often induced by severe mental stress, when a flood of the depressive risk-hormone cortisol hits the brain and individuals lose all belief in their ability to influence the outcome of events. City traders experienced it en masse during the financial meltdown, their loss of faith in doing what had, until then, been second nature — instead staring blankly at screens — making the spiralling losses much worse. Likewise Murray, just for a while, seemed not only unable to offer a solution to the problem that Djokovic was posing him on court, but also to have given up on the idea that there could even be one. He got himself together, a bit, towards the end of that match, but he still emerged from it not having won a single set in the three Grand Slam finals he’s contested. Afterwards he suggested, possibly correctly, that no tennis player alive could have beaten his opponent in that form. But still, the manner of his capitulation in that odd passage of play — the moment when much of Britain, watching early on Sunday morning, went back to bed — was not easily forgotten.
Sportsmen have another name for learned helplessness: they call it “choking”. There are infamous instances of it: John Terry hacking what would have been a Champions League-winning penalty against a post in 2008; Jean van de Velde up to his knees in water at the final hole of the British Open in 1999; Czech tennis player Jana Novotná, 4–0 up in the closing set of the final at Wimbledon against Steffi Graf in 1993, suddenly almost unable to hit a ball. It occurs when those movements, so ingrained and grooved in a great sportsman’s muscle memory, become something that have to be thought about, just at the moment when the mind goes blank.
It is very rare for a ranked tennis player to question the state of mind of a rival player, particularly one who, like Murray, is in the top 10 in the world. Thus when, in 2008, the Austrian Jürgen Melzer openly voiced his opinion that Murray was “a choker” before a Davis Cup match, Murray was properly outraged. He came out fighting, responding by winning his matches against the Austrians, and intermittently putting his hands to his throat in an ironic gagging gesture, just to press the point home. This time, when his defeat in Australia was followed by three first-round exits in successive tournaments, latterly to the then 27-year-old world number 110 Alex Bogomolov Jr, the cries of mental frailty have been harder to silence.
It seems odd that we are already thinking of Murray in these terms. In the past, pretty much every year since Fred Perry won the last of his three Wimbledon finals three-quarters of a century ago, we have become used to the Great British Hope finding new ways to fail in major events. Murray always looked like he was going to be the exception.
Great champions can always spot future champions long before anyone else: former world number ones know about the single-mindedness, the silencing of voices in the head, that it takes to get there. John McEnroe singled out Murray early on as the man most likely to end Britain’s 75 years of hurt. Murray had something different, Mac suggested, from the Henmans and the Lloyds that had come and gone before: Murray didn’t feel the pressure because he clearly couldn’t give a stuff what anyone thought. The caricature dourness seemed to help in this: Andymonium was never likely to become Henmania; Murray was not a man to induce face-painting in home-counties spinsters.
It’s plainly ridiculous to be writing off Murray, still the world’s fourth best player at the age of 24, from overcoming these enemies of promise, but with another Wimbledon approaching, the question “where did it all go wrong?” is similarly hard to ignore. Murray has responded to his desperate form in the traditional way by sacking his coach, Alex Corretja. In the weeks before he appointed his friend Dani Vallverdu as de facto head coach, no end of leathery old pros — Jimmy Connors, Tony Roche, Ivan Lendl — apparently touted their services. The most intriguing of these was the latter. Lendl was a rare example of a player who, having looked very much like a choker in the early part of his career, tepidly losing his first four Grand Slam finals, turned that around to go on to win eight major titles. He seemed to do this by focusing on his physical power, letting the strength of his body will
his mind over the line — something Murray seems unlikely to achieve.
That so many ex-champions looked keen to help the Scot’s quest for glory suggests that they could see something maddeningly correctable in his approach. Mats Wilander, another self-willed winner, noted after the Australian embarrassment that Murray’s on-court demeanour, his seemingly disconsolate rage against the world, was getting in the way of his progress: “Andy Murray… grow up. Mom, lay down the rules,” he wrote on his blog. “Stop swearing at yourself and all of us. When will chair umpire wake up and explain to Andy this is not cool and you better stop or be punished. We don’t need this... so put a smile on your face and suck it up.”
This summoning of Murray’s mother, Judy, to correct his vices looked more than pointed. Probably because tennis players have to start at such an early age, and have to be ferried around tournaments in the backs of cars, in no other sport do players take quite the same amount of Freudian baggage into the locker room. Tennis fathers — with their controlling orders and the prison sentences — do not have a monopoly on control freakery, especially when the mother never quite made it (like Judy Murray) as a player. The golden career of Martina Hingis ended prematurely after the Swiss player demanded more space from her overbearing mother, Melanie Molitorova, who had been frustrated not to get to the pro tour and planned her daughter’s career ante-natally. Gloria Connors, a minor American player, was similarly driven on her son’s behalf and was once heard to yell: “Kick him in the slats, Jimmy!” as her boy struggled on Centre Court.
Occasionally, not surprisingly, Murray’s increasingly anguished on-court tirades seem directed toward his mother in the family seats. The cameras at Melbourne played up the possibilities of this Greek tragedy by cutting continually from close-ups on Murray’s internal psychodrama to shots of his mother living every moment up in the stands. In no other walk of life is a son expected to perform for his parents in this kind of exposed fashion. TV cameras don’t routinely pan to old Mrs Rooney when Wayne misses a sitter. And in this sense Wilander’s advice to Murray seems to carry a subtext: cut the apron strings, be your own man.
The eternal difficulty for tennis players is that having been hot-housed through childhood and then asked to practise a game for a living, growing up is not as straightforward as it sounds. Murray, who was sent away from home to play tennis in Spain in his early teens, seems to feel this tension more than most. I interviewed him at some length in London at the beginning of last year when he seemed even more than usually truculent (he had just split from his long-term and now once-again girlfriend Kim Sears). I tried to question him about some of the difficulties of responsibility on court. He was characteristically defensive, though he did concede that he felt some pressure from the fact that “in team sports you don’t necessarily get the blame for a defeat pushed on to you: it’s the linesman or the manager or whatever. In tennis it is never the coach’s fault, it is always just you.”
Most psychologists suggest that for great sportsmen the fear of losing is a more powerful motivation than any joy at winning. Murray epitomises this (as Becker and McEnroe and Borg did before him). His answer, again, to the question of whether the contentment at victory is ever a match for the despair at defeat sounded like something drummed into him at a motivational weekend: “You need to love winning,” he said, without appearing to quite believe it. “You can’t just hate losing. It’s too negative.”
The armchair shrink never has to look too far with Murray to guess at the source of his determination and his demons. There is his proximity to the Dunblane massacre (he was a pupil at the school, then aged nine, and in another classroom) about which he never talks out of proper respect for the families who lost sons and daughters. There is the separation of his parents the following year. He sometimes seems bottled up to the point of vacuum sealing. At the end of our stilted hour together, Murray suggested that he has no interest in opening up: “I’m not going to talk tactics with the press, so you are left with talking about how you are feeling; for me, it is not the most interesting thing to be doing.”
Murray has been working on some of this with his tweeting — mostly about training schedules and his football team, Hibs — but of course that one-way conversation is on his terms. He is the same age as his conqueror in Melbourne, Djokovic, and the pair have been facing each other across a net since they could hardly see over it.
If he was to learn from anyone in Wimbledon fortnight, it might be from Djokovic, who seems to have mastered the art of not only being his own most severe critic, but also of relaxing into something like enjoyment at the moments when greatest intensity is required. Murray is a greater natural talent than the Serb, and still may prove it, if only he would allow himself, in the fullest sense of the word, to play.