He has spent the past five months trying to get himself match fit again after having back surgery last September but, now that he is fighting fit, he has discovered that his tennis has fallen apart whilst he was otherwise engaged. It is not the most cheering of thoughts but it is about the only positive he can take with him from the BNP Paribas open in Indian Wells – his back is fine even if his tennis is in bits.
For the second time in two matches, Murray threw away a perfectly serviceable lead and did so for no obvious reason. Against Jiri Vesely on Monday, it did not matter too much as the young Czech did not have the wit nor the wherewithal to make the most of Murray’s malaise but, against Milos Raonic, the world No 10 from Canada, Scotland’s finest could not get off so lightly – Raonic, much to his own amazement, headed for the quarter-finals 4-6, 7-5, 6-3.
For much of the first two sets, Murray had been in charge. He had read the big man’s serve, he had made him play and he had bossed Raonic around. Then, suddenly and without warning, the Wimbledon champion fell apart. Shots that he could easily make with his eyes shut flew long and wide while his strategy, that part of his game that is usually rock solid, went into reverse. Murray was stumped as to why it had happened but furious that he had let a perfectly good opportunity slip away.
“I was in a position I wanted to be in the match and I didn’t do well enough in the third set,” he said with a frown. “It doesn’t matter how well or how pretty your matches are, or how well you hit the ball. It’s about winning tennis matches. It’s like that in every sport. It doesn’t matter how good the football or the tennis looks, it’s about winning and getting yourself in winning positions and I’ve done that. And today I got myself in a good position and I blew it. That’s the frustrating thing because, whether I’m hitting the ball unbelievable or not, you need to still find a way to win matches and I had that opportunity today and I didn’t take it.”
Two months into the season, Murray is not lacking match play – he has turned out for duty 19 times so far and lost five matches – and, after all the extra training and rehab work he has done in the last few months, he is as fit as a flea. It just appears that, for some unknown reason, he has forgotten how to close out matches. “I don’t normally give up too many leads but I did that a couple of times this week,” he said. “You can’t be doing that at this level. You’ve got to keep your foot down and not let up at all. I didn’t necessarily feel like I kind of let up, I just started missing shots. Maybe it was down to intensity, concentration, confidence, whatever it was – I’ll need to have a think about that because that period of the match in the third set was nowhere near good enough.”
Coach Ivan Lendl will not be too impressed with his charge’s efforts in California but, then again, his own record in the dry, thin air was limited. He never liked the desert conditions and, after reaching the final a couple of times, gave the place a wide berth thereafter. But it was not the conditions scuppering Murray’s chances, it was Murray himself – and Lendl will want to get to work on that problem the minute he gets to Miami.
“The best way to get over results like this,” Murray explained “is to get on the practice court, get in the gym and put work in and that often gives you confidence. I’ve played a lot of matches in the last few weeks and months but I haven’t spent so much time in the gym or loads of time practising different things. I’ve just been getting my match fitness back up and, now that I’m match fit, maybe I need to get back on the practice court and work on, well, a number of things. It’s certainly not just one aspect of my game that I’m unhappy with, there’s a few things that I’d like to do better.”
Still, at least Murray is feeling physically well enough. He is a long way from his best in terms of execution, tactics and shot selection but, when it comes to the nipping about part, he feels fine. And, if he can maintain that level of fitness, he hopes that, in a couple of months, he should be ready for the busiest time of the season – the French Open immediately followed by Wimbledon – and for the defence of his title in SW19.
“I’m glad I’m match fit and that I haven’t come back and my body has broken down or other parts of my body have broken down,” he said. “My body is pretty good and, hopefully, by the French Open, I’ll be ready to play my best tennis again.”
It was not much to hang on to but it was the only crumb of comfort Murray that could find after yet another disappointing week in Indian Wells.