Cautiously optimistic is probably the best way to describe Andy Murray’s current frame of mind.
He has reached the second week of the French Open, today he plays Karen Khachanov, the 21-year-old world No 53 from Russia by way of a tennis academy in Barcelona, and round by round his form is improving. The world No 1 is not year ready to hang out the bunting and announce his ambitions for the title but he is feeling a good deal better than he was 10 days ago.
“I wasn’t playing well enough last week to win the tournament,” he said. “But things can change very quickly; you don’t become a bad tennis player overnight. The further that you go, the better you start to feel, the more confidence you get and you are in the second week of a slam, so anything is possible.
“Why not set the bar as high as possible? It’s better to say ‘OK, I want to try and win the tournament’ and fall short and lose in the final than say ‘I’m delighted getting to the second week’ and then lose in the fourth round. I want to try to go as far as possible but there are no guarantees.”
Popular wisdom has it that Murray’s recent malaise is as a direct consequence of reaching the top of the rankings last year: he has achieved a lifetime goal and now he has nothing left to aim for. But popular wisdom is the outsiders’ view. The view from the inside is very different.
Mats Wilander, pictured, reached the No 1 spot in 1988 after beating Ivan Lendl to win the US Open and he was never the same player again. He had not aimed for the top spot – it just happened by accident. And when it did, it took him completely by surprise and robbed him of the steely drive that had earned him seven grand slam titles.
“I don’t think the goal is to be No 1 in the world,” Wilander said. “The goal is to win grand slam tournaments and if you win all four then the last goal is gone. I think No 1 is a thing that just happens. But I think that if you achieve something that you don’t expect to achieve, I think that’s when it’s like, ‘Oh my God – and it isn’t more special than this? Oh, wow. That’s amazing.’ Because that’s how I felt. I never tried to be No 1 in the world. It just happened.”
Suddenly all the usual feelings that Wilander had lived with all his working life – the adrenaline, the aggression, the nerves, the tension – were different. Nothing felt right and he did not know why. As he has watched Murray these past few months, he has seen the Scot go through the same confusing range of emotions.
“The worst feeling in the world is feeling flat emotionally and being tight in your arms and your body,” Wilander said. “Because that’s what Andy was even in his second round here. He couldn’t hit a backhand to save his life and emotionally he was completely flat. That is the absolute most horrific feeling. The let-down of feeling like that when you go on to the court when you’re supposed to be No 1 in the world and then it’s like ‘Oh my God, I don’t feel it’. And then ‘I’m not nervous, I don’t feel it but I can’t hit a ball because somehow I’m still tight’.”
Wilander never found a way out of his own funk but he is hopeful that Murray will find a way out of his. Indeed, with his win on Saturday over Juan Martin del Potro, Murray may already have found the route back to his best and now he just needs to plan for the journey. Wilander does know, though, that the world No 1 will work himself hard to try to get himself back on the right track.
“I had exactly the same thing,” said Wilander. “I worked even harder, it’s just that when you get to the match, it doesn’t mean that much. It doesn’t mean anything. And then you hit a shot. What did I do? What was that? I don’t know. I wasn’t paying attention – me, to myself – and then it’s like, ‘oh my God, I’m not paying attention’. I think time is the only thing that can fix it.
“You have conversations with your team about it. ‘Oh, I didn’t feel today, I didn’t feel it today, I didn’t feel it today’ and then eventually it again becomes important to not lose against this f*****g guy on the other side of the net. Because I can’t stand this, this, this and this about that guy or his game. That’s what has to happen. That’s where it comes from.
“The main objective is to not lose. Because if I lose, I can’t play tomorrow. And really what I want to do is play. So, winning becomes everything. It takes work. That’s all. It takes a lot of uphill battles.”
Murray believes he is finally beginning to win those battles. He may not be playing at his very best – and, in the first couple of rounds, he was well below that level – but he is winning. That is a massive step forward. “I felt like I’ve been doing the right things in practice,” he said, “just maybe in the matches I was not as switched on as I needed to be but I think in the matches here I’ve been more switched on.
“I didn’t play perfect tennis in the first two rounds. I didn’t play perfectly against Del Potro, but it gives you a lot better chance of turning your form around and also winning matches just by playing smart because, when I’m not playing well, I can still win matches against top players. I did it last year a bunch.”
If he can do it again today, there may be more cause for optimism and less for caution as Murray makes his way through the tournament.