Time for Murray to start winning the mind games

Andy Murray dismantled Tomas Berdych, now he faces Novak Djokovic. Picture: Getty
Andy Murray dismantled Tomas Berdych, now he faces Novak Djokovic. Picture: Getty
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Now comes the real test. Today Andy Murray will face Novak Djokovic for the Miami Open title. It is their third meeting this year, and as Scotland’s finest has tried to inch himself back to his former glories, the grand slam winning glories of the days before his back surgery in 2013, the world No.1 has kept getting in the way.

As he has explained countless times, last year was a struggle – mentally, physically and emotionally. Coming back from the surgery was always going to be difficult, a test of physical strength and mental patience. Splitting up with Ivan Lendl just made life all the more difficult for Murray but when he hired Amelie Mauresmo in the summer, he thought he had taken a step forward. Then the squabbling among his team knocked him back yet again and it was not until the off-season that he was able to sort out the problems, reorganise the personnel and get back to the simple business of playing tennis.

He has been doing that well enough this year: in January he reached his first grand slam final in two years, today is his first Masters Series final in two years. At the Australian Open, Murray was a break up in the third set and seemingly had Djokovic on the ropes. But then he let the Serb get to him, his brain went into meltdown and that was the end of that.

In Indian Wells a couple of weeks ago, Murray had been playing better than ever in the desert conditions but then ran into Djokovic in the semi-finals and played like a beaten man from the start. He never got going and the world No.1 sailed into the final and on to the title. As ever, Murray made no excuses: he had not been good enough to win.

“In Australia I felt like I was extremely close,” Murray said at the time. “I didn’t feel like the difference was necessarily in the level of the tennis.

“The guys that are ahead of me just now I’m competing with, their consistency is pretty much unheard of. Very few players ever have been able to do what they have. So unfortunately I end up getting questioned about why I haven’t done as well in the slams or haven’t done as well as in the Masters Series. A lot of the times, I have lost against those guys. It’s tough, but it’s a challenge that I enjoy and like.”

The trouble is, the more Murray says such things, the more he sounds like he believes it. Until his back surgery, his rivalry with the Serb stood at 11-8 in Djokovic’s favour but Murray had won two of their past three grand slam finals. There was barely a whisker between them. Now the tally stands at 17-8 to Djokovic and the rivalry is considerably more one-sided.

Djokovic is, by a clear margin, the best player on the planet. He has no obvious weakness, he has the ability to turn defence into attack in the blinking of an eye and he believes he can win on any surface. Yet confidence is strange thing: until Wimbledon last summer, Djokovic thought he had lost it – he could not win the big finals any more (he had lost five of his previous six grand slam finals). And then he beat Roger Federer in five fraught sets and suddenly he felt invincible again.

At his best, the tennis Murray has been playing this year is proof enough that technically he is as good as he ever was and that physically he is back to where he wants to be. The way he dismantled Tomas Berdych in the semi-finals on Friday was a good sign that he can still be ruthless, too. Now he needs to beat a Djokovic, a Federer or a Rafael Nadal to prove to himself that he really does deserve his place in the Big Four at the top of the rankings. And today would be as good a time as any to do it.