When Novak Djokovic wanted to turn his form around, he went for what the politicians love to call a “root-and -branch” transformation (he fired everyone in his team bar his emotional guru and hired a bloke who had never even coached his own kids before).
Djokovic’s new partnership with Andre Agassi is about as radical and as drastic a change as seemed possible for the Serb. He is hoping that Agassi’s experience of being the world No 1, of then dropping down to No 141 in 1997, of losing his way both on and off the court and of then reinventing himself and reclaiming the top ranking will somehow rub off on him. Agassi will have words of wisdom to impart, a plan to re-fire the Serb’s competitive spirit. But Djokovic waits on.
When Andy Murray wanted to lift himself from the slump he found himself in this year, he vowed to work harder (it is his default setting). But when he joined forces with Ivan Lendl the week before the French Open began, he did not hit the gym, pump iron or beg for inspiration from his coach; he went back to basics.
“It sounds simple but it is not,” Murray said. “A lot of the time when things are not going well you start over-thinking things. You start wanting to try new things on the practice court, changing tensions in your racket. You think all sorts of things to work out what is going wrong. And the one thing we did when Ivan got here, we went right back to the basics.
“The drills we were doing were all very basic, pretty simple drills but we spent a lot of time on the court. We hit lots of balls. No time in the gym really. It was just tennis, plain tennis, and literally getting back to doing the basics right: making a lot of balls, making myself difficult to beat. And then once you start to do that, you get through a couple of matches, you start feeling better, your confidence grows. It can be right down at the bottom but it can go right up to the top pretty quickly and that has been the case so far this tournament.”
From a tentative start and a couple of scratchy early rounds, Murray had suddenly clicked into gear. He was very good against Juan Martin del Potro on Saturday and he was even better against Karen Khachanov on Monday. Against the Russian, he had that air of authority about him: Murray was the world No 1 and Khachanov was not going to be allowed to trouble him. This was more like the player who had dominated the latter half of last year.
Today, weather permitting, Murray will take on Kei Nishikori, the world No 9, for a place in the semi-finals. Not the biggest of players at 5ft 10in, Nishikori – when he is fit – relies on his speed and his court craft to beat the bigger, more powerful men. But Nishikori is not fit: he has been struggling with a wrist injury throughout the clay court season and while he will not admit it, he does seem to be hampered by a groin injury at the moment which limits his ability to stretch and slide on the forehand side.
Murray, on the other hand, is feeling physically better than he was this time last year and was heading to the final. Then he had reached the final in Madrid and won the title in Rome and, as a result, he got to Paris later than usual and felt like he was always one step behind in his preparations.
“I’m certainly fresher than last year,” he said. “Last year, the start of the tournament was pretty tough. I didn’t play well in the first couple of rounds and they were hard matches. And I came in playing a lot of tennis so the body probably feels a little bit better than it did last year.”
That does not bode well for Nishikori. The two times he has beaten the Scot in their ten previous meetings, Murray has been exhausted.
In 2014, he had busted a gut to qualify for the ATP World Tour Finals and had nothing left to give when he got there and last September at the US Open, Murray was running on fumes after winning gold in Rio and reaching the Cincinnati final the week after.
This time Murray is physically ready for whatever Nishikori can throw at him and now that Lendl’s back-to-basics regime has rebooted his competitive circuits, he is mentally ready for the challenge. And for the first time this year, he looks like a man who is ready to challenge for a major title.