Andy Murray is back on court at Melbourne after surgery, but his Wimbledon win has lifted some of the pressure off his shoulders
WHEN Novak Djokovic set out to conquer the world at the start of 2011, he was a man without fear: three days of gut-wrenching, white-knuckle terror in the Davis Cup final just weeks before had cured him of that. He had led Serbia to a famous win in Belgrade and he knew that he would never feel nerves, tension or sheer panic like that again on a tennis court. And he was right, as he swept all before him to become the world No.1 by the summer.
But if Djokovic thought that he felt pressure in that Davis Cup final, it was as nothing compared to Andy Murray’s historic afternoon on Wimbledon’s Centre Court last July when not only did 60 million Brits sit on the edge of their seats begging him to end their 77-year wait for a home-grown men’s singles champion, the whole world sat transfixed to see if this young lad from Dunblane could do what no other British man had done since Fred Perry in 1936. Now that is pressure. And Murray rewrote the history books and emerged victorious.
With that memory safely locked away, Murray ought never to feel such tension again. Everyone suffers from nerves before and during a match but that brain-freezing panic, the fear of failure that turns the legs to lead and the lungs to cement, ought to be a thing of the past. But just when the world No.4 should be at his most relaxed and at his peak, he is facing a whole new raft of anxieties.
Four months away from the courts recovering from back surgery has left him short of match practice and following a new path to the start of the Australian Open tomorrow. This is a new experience and he is making up the rules as he goes along. So far, he has played just a handful of matches – the latest was a straight-set loss to Lleyton Hewitt on Friday in an exhibition event – and while he is feeling fit and practising well, he is still trying to remember what it feels like to close out important points in regular matches. It is nowhere near as pressurised as winning the final point in a Wimbledon final, but it is a new and slightly unsettling experience nevertheless.
“I feel like now, I should be able to cope with anything, nerves or pressure, anything that I’ll have to deal with on the tennis court,” Murray said, looking remarkably fresh after his two-hour workout in the sun on Friday.
“The one thing I haven’t done since I’ve been a professional, the last few years, is to recover from surgery, and that’s something that’s completely different. There are different stresses and nerves. But once I get back to play matches again I wouldn’t have thought I’d have too many problems dealing with nerves and pressure, for the rest of my career.
“The nerves and pressure are actually good things in a lot of ways. I want to feel that way. It’s just knowing that you’re going to be able to deal with them is obviously the nice thing. When the nerves and pressure are gone, that’s not a good sign. Things can go downhill pretty quickly. But even before today, I was a little bit nervous, just because playing in front of people is different. Normally, playing an exhibition match a few days before a slam, I’m more sort of cautious, I don’t want to over-do it, or whatever. Whereas today I wanted to go out, try and move, and work hard. Every day’s very important for me just now.”
Until Murray turned to Ivan Lendl for help two years ago, his mental strength had been questioned. His main rivals seemed fearless when match-point presented itself in big finals but the Scot seemed to be consumed by doubt. Lendl’s steely resolve – he, too, had lost four major finals before going on to win eight grand slam titles – did the trick and now everyone wants a high-profile coach to help them. Djokovic has hired Boris Becker and even Roger Federer, a man desperately trying to stop the clock and fend off the ageing process, has hired Stefan Edberg to advise him.
Everyone in Murray’s team worked tirelessly to get him to the point where he could challenge for major trophies and as his tears after the Wimbledon final in 2012 showed, he could not bear to let them down. Now, having repaid their efforts with a Wimbledon and US Open title and an Olympic gold medal, he does not worry that he has failed anyone. That in itself allows Murray a touch more emotional freedom. “Always when you go on the court, you are ultimately playing for yourself,” he said. “A lot of people have asked me about Becker and Edberg – these guys are unbelievable players, but the players need to put the work in. Doesn’t matter who’s coaching them, who’s training them or whatever, the players need to put all the work in.
“You’re the one who puts the right people in place, then it’s really down to you and it’s your responsibility.
“I’ve always played for myself, but being able to win Wimbledon and the US Open, those major tournaments meant a lot to me because I’ve worked extremely hard with those people.
“They’ve been with me for a long time, they’ve seen me fail on numerous occasions and they’ve always stuck by me, so it was nice to be able to share those moments with them. So, that’s not going to change so much. When I go on court, I’ll still be playing for myself first and foremost.”
And when he goes on court in Melbourne – his first outing will be against Go Soeda from Japan – he will feel right at home. The conditions, with 40-degree heat forecast for next week, are brutal for everyone but the courts suit him, the atmosphere welcomes him and his results have been more consistent in Australia than at any of the major tournaments, reaching three finals in four years. He has prepared as best he can at his Miami training base but nothing really readies you for the ferocious heat of the Australian summer.
“The thing is with the heat, all the players are going to struggle with it and it comes down to whether you’ve put the work in or not and I hope that I have,” Murray said.
“Even in Miami it’s hot and it’s humid but it’s just different here. You get one of the 40 degree days or something and a five, six degree difference is huge – you know, training in 32 and then going out in 40, it’s a huge difference. You really feel it. The court surface gets roasting, your feet get really hot, your legs start to get tired early and burn, and then obviously with sun in your face, it’s so strong here that your skin’s burning. It’s not easy.
“But I like the hard courts here more than I do at the US Open, strangely. I prefer the conditions here. The balls are a lot easier to control here. So I like the conditions here the most.”
And, deep down, Murray knows that whatever the Open throws at him in the coming days, nothing will be as difficult as the last game of the Wimbledon final – not now, not ever. That, as Djokovic discovered in 2011, can be the greatest weapon of all.