ON FRIDAY night, Andy Murray talked about how he is more at ease these days, more grown up. He has certainly come of age.
He is no longer accompanied into press conferences by a brooding dark cloud and the demeanour of a fellow being led to the gallows. He is never likely to be a fan of such gatherings and given his history with some members of the Fourth Estate that is unsurprising, but these days he is in control.
Those who had picked at every fault and perceived weakness since he emerged on the scene as a wide-eyed youth, unaccustomed to press intrusion, the public demands and the weight of expectation, skulked off to the shadows after last summer’s achievement. While they had continued to carp after the US Open win and cast doubts after the Olympics, when he produced the goods on the Centre Court at the All England club last July, the mutterings were muted.
That has left Murray in control on and off court this week. Comfortable in his own skin and at peace with the details of his CV, on the court he is still nervous but he has a grip on those flutterings. Off court he is still guarded but more relaxed. It is all a sign of a man who has proved he can shoulder the burden of history and rebuff the negativity of others.
“Obviously I had a few problems with the media. It became hard for me. I didn’t feel like I was represented fairly. I went into my shell. I didn’t feel like I could express myself at all. I became very defensive because I felt like I was getting criticised about not just my tennis but my hair, the way I looked, what I was saying.
“It was a tough few years for me because my jump came quite quickly from being 350 in the world to playing in the slams and being in press conferences with a lot of people. It was a quick transition and I had a few problems in that early part of my career.
“Once I started to grow up and understand how everything worked, I was able to handle things much better. I’ve had good people around me as well, who have helped me through tough moments and given me good advice when I’ve needed it. Now I feel like I’m a grown-up, so I can handle myself fine now.”
In that realm of his life he has no qualms about looking back and analysing how far he has come and how things have changed and he is happy to compare and contrast the way he performs at particular competitions and slams. He is more reticent when it comes to comparing on-court accomplishments.
Asked to compare this year’s stress-free progression through the first week of Wimbledon, to his performances last year en route to winning the Championships, he said little could be derived from such indulgences.
“I don’t really look back and compare. These are different opponents and some matches are just going to be longer based on game styles of your opponent. But it’s a new year, a completely different tournament and I take each match as it goes. It’s been one of the best starts I have had here, that’s for sure.”
Into the last 16, having spent just 5 hours 12 minutes on court, lost just 19 games and zero sets, it is the kind of start he must have dreamed of as he walked out on to Centre Court on Monday to open proceedings, the first British man in 77 years to do as defending champion. Twelve months ago, he got the monkey off his back. Three months later he underwent back surgery. Any external pressure now merely matches the demands he places on himself.
“But I enjoy pressure. I like feeling nervous. I’m not scared of that feeling. I felt like I played my best tennis when I’ve been under pressure. I love playing here.”
That shows in his play. He is extrapolating positives from the fact he has expended no more energy than has been absolutely necessary en route to the business end of the fortnight and says the only way it could be construed as a negative is if he allows complacency to creep in. “Sometimes I’ve had tough first weeks and gone on to do well and sometimes I’ve had easy first weeks and had equally good tournaments. I don’t think it makes a huge difference. For me last year I was coming to the tournament having not played at the French Open and missed quite a bit of tennis. Because of the grass it was important for me to get a good start in the tournament because maybe physically I wasn’t in my best shape. This year I don’t see that being a problem.
“The only way that could become a problem is if you are not mentally prepared for the matches to get more challenging. If you just think everything will be the same as it was in the first week and you are playing well enough, then you will have problems. I’m aware that next week against Kevin things will be a lot tougher. There are going to be harder moments in the second week.”
The South African is someone he knows well enough to be wary of. He has pitched up for some training matches in Miami with Murray and has also been hitting some balls with Murray’s former coach Ivan Lendl. But in match play, the honours are even, with one win and a loss. In Canada, in 2011, it was the 6’8” Anderson who got the better of things, a year earlier at the Australian Open, Murray had ousted him from the tournament before he had found time to unpack.
A big guy with a big game was how Murray described tomorrow’s opponent. But unlike other lofty adversaries like Ivo Karlovic and John Isner, he says Anderson has more in his arsenal than a high-bouncing serve and a follow-up volley.
“He doesn’t serve as big as them but he is probably better from the back of the court. He returns better, has a better return game than Isner and Karlovic. There might be more chances to break, but equally he will return better and make more balls when you are serving. There are obviously some similarities because of the size of them but he has a pretty much different game to those guys.
“I would say he is more mobile than Karlovic. Isner moves ... it would depend on the surface. I haven’t played him on grass before so I don’t know how he moves on the grass. Isner and Kevin both move well on the hard courts. But most of the big guys now who play from the back of the court are pretty good movers.”
The back sorted and the load of expectation lessened now that history has been hacked into, Murray is moving as well as anyone, gliding into the second week with consummate ease.