Gilbert happy to take flak as Murray channels anger

JOHN Lloyd knows Andy Murray better than most and he made an interesting point on Monday. Britain's Davis Cup captain was in the BBC commentary box for Murray's epic encounter with Rafael Nadal and he observed that the Scot's frequent verbal outbursts, directed at his coach, Brad Gilbert, seemed to have the effect not of unsettling or distracting him, but of making him play better.

Sitting with Lloyd, Chris Bailey wasn't so approving, repeatedly apologising to the daytime TV audience - those who could lip-read, anyway - for the x-rated content of Murray's blasts. But Lloyd seemed perfectly relaxed. "When he lets off steam like that it seems to allow him to raise his game," said Lloyd, sounding enthusiastic and slightly baffled by the correlation between swearing fit and improvement in play. "If it helps him, then that's what he should do."

'Letting off steam' is one way of describing Murray's rants. But as well as the positive impact on his game, another remarkable aspect is the effect they have on the man at whom they're directed. Which is to say, none at all. Gilbert gazes at his pupil, impassive and inscrutable, Murray's words appearing to slide over him like water on Teflon.

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In this respect Gilbert seems more like the parent of a wayward and unpredictable but fundamentally well-meaning child. And this is possibly not so far from the truth. Sitting not far from Lloyd on Monday was Mats Wilander, working as a pundit for Eurosport. The former world number one revealed that Gilbert had forbidden Murray from shouting either at the umpire or himself on court. "Who am I supposed to shout at then?" asked Murray. "Me, if you have to," replied Gilbert.

Yesterday, Leon Smith, who coached Murray for six years, until he was 17, took the same view as Lloyd. And he suggested that Gilbert, as his coach, might even be reassured by it. "I didn't mind when he shouted at me," said Smith. "It was his way of getting his temper out. It also shows that he wants to turn to you - he's doing it because of the close relationship he has with Brad. When he's feeling frustrated, his coach is the first person he turns to - that's a positive thing. It's also a trust thing, and it's better than shouting at the umpire or the crowd. I think with Andy it allows him to let off steam and then re-focus.

"It does look a bit strange," admitted Smith, who is now the LTA national training coach. "I watched the game courtside at a junior tournament, so I couldn't hear what he was saying - but I guess it was a lot of shouting and swearing. I wouldn't have a problem with that. He wants to win so badly; he is so competitive. But he's also a teenager. He has matured and grown up so much in the last year, but we've got to remember that. That sort of behaviour is normal in teenagers."

Gilbert probably understands this better than most: he has an 18-year-old son. And while his previous charges - Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick - did not subject him to similar ear-bashings, both were older, and quite different in temperament. "Andy shows more emotion than either of these players," Smith points out. "Tennis is an individual sport, every player is different." In this respect something that Gilbert said last year seems apposite. "I adapt to the player," he said after replacing Mark Petchey as Murray's coach.

Still, the apparent volatility of their relationship can make for uneasy viewing and it leads inevitably to speculation that it will not last. Yesterday William Hill offered odds of 2/1 that the pair will part company in 2007.

It was in the Qatar Open in Doha, on the eve of the Australian Open, that Murray's habit of shouting at Gilbert first attracted attention. Was this something that the pair had been working on over the winter? Speaking about it a fortnight ago, Gilbert seemed relaxed.

"I know he doesn't mean it," explained Gilbert. "He'll come off court and say 'I can't believe I was acting that way.' [But] when Andy is yelling and shouting he's not so much p***** off at me as p***** at himself because he is striving to do better. We are working on that. We're trying to temper him down. The calmer he can be, the better his game is going to be."

Another of Murray's former coaches, Euan McGinn, noted yesterday that such outbursts have been a feature of his game for more than a decade. "The fieriness makes him the player he is," says McGinn, who worked under Judy Murray at Tennis Scotland. "He had that temper when he was younger. At ten or eleven he could be quite awkward on court. It was like he felt that he knew more than you did. And he often did. When it came to tactics he would be the only one to stand up and say 'I don't agree with that.' He has always been very much his own person."

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Murray's blasts at Gilbert could form part of a calculated strategy to prevent him yelling at umpires, or be a way of letting off steam, but according to his countryman and contemporary, Jamie Baker, there is a third possible interpretation. Baker spent some time with him in Doha on the eve of the Australian Open, and noted that Murray was having fewer confrontations with umpires. But he had his own theory. "He's hitting the ball so well," said Baker, "that he has nothing really to moan about."

The obvious conclusion to Baker's theory could be sobering for Gilbert. If an ear bashing is his fate when Murray is playing well, he should perhaps brace himself for when his protg's form takes a dip.