OVER the past decade, Andy Murray has grown up before our eyes. From a spindly and spiky youth, he transformed himself into the lean and muscular champion we know now. From the inexperienced teenager who sometimes found himself with his foot in his mouth, he has become one of the thoughtful statesmen of his sport.
But now he entering a new phase of his career.
In days gone by, he would have worked himself to a standstill over Christmas to prepare for the first Grand Slam of the year. And then, when he lost in the final, he would take months to recover from the disappointment. It stayed with him like a bad hangover – nothing would shift the thumping pain and slightly sick feeling in his stomach when he thought of what might have been.
This time, however, after his fourth defeat in the Melbourne final, and his third at the hands of Novak Djokovic, he is a more contented soul. Sure enough, the loss hurt – it hurt like hell – but Murray knows that he is making progress. He is settled, he is happy but he is also ambitious for more success and, he thinks, that goal of more major trophies is a clear target ahead of him with the path towards it clearly signposted. His performances these past two weeks have told him that.
“I made it clear that I was distracted in the third set, that was all,” he said after his 7-6, 6-7, 6-3, 6-0 loss to Djokovic. “I lost in a good way. I gave everything, my best effort in this event. Not everyone always sees that, it’s only me and my team and the people I train with who see that.
“But I did everything I could to win this event. I have to be proud of myself for that and I don’t need things to motivate me. I’m an extremely motivated person and I always try to learn and work hard to get better. So, although losing this match is hard and I wish I could have done better, I thought I played the best I have in long time.
“I get asked all the time, like when I lost to Roger [Federer] at the end of last year: ‘Will you use this as motivation?’ I just want to try to get better, to keep improving and I’ll work hard to do that.”
In professional sport, losing is an occupational hazard – it is coping with the fall-out that separates the good from the great. Over the years, Murray has tried every approach he can think of to cope with the aftermath. When he was young, he could torment himself with his own perceived failings. As he got older, he tried surrounding himself with a gang of cheery helpers – Team Murray was born – and then, when he needed to home in on the big trophies, he tried the tough love approach of Ivan Lendl. Each method paid its dividends but now, as he approaches his 28th birthday, Murray is taking a more philosophical view.
His coach, Amélie Mauresmo, is funny, intelligent and, off-court, laid back. But do not be fooled – she is a driven woman. She knows exactly what it takes to win grand slam titles and to become the best in the world. She also knows what it is like to lose and how to pick yourself up and start again. With Mauresmo at his side, his team settled and content, Murray is ready to deal with almost anything.
“Success is being happy,” he said. “It’s not about winning every single tournament you play, because that isn’t possible. You want to win every event, that’s for sure. That’s what you prepare for. But no one in the history of this game has ever done that. You prepare as best as you can. I would rather lose in the final and be happy than win the final and go home and be miserable.
“I want to try to enjoy my tennis more right now than I probably did at the beginning of my career. Obviously I would have liked to have won the final, but you can’t win all of them, unfortunately. I’m happy with everything that I put into the event. I couldn’t have done anything more. I couldn’t have prepared better. I couldn’t have done anything more to give myself a better chance to win. So I can’t be disappointed with that because I gave my best effort.
“With any athlete, that’s what you ask of them – to give themselves the best chance of winning, and I did that. I just wish I could have done a little bit better in the third set.”
The tennis which Murray and Djokovic produced in the first two sets of Sunday’s final was the best that anyone had seen for many a season. For sheer, sustained power, effort, creativity, guts and superb shot-making, it beat any major final of last season. That is Murray’s building block for the rest of the season. He now knows that his body and his game are again ready to take on the likes of Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Federer. And, next time, he will not allow his concentration to wander. With that in mind, he is heading home for a bit of time off.
“I deserve a rest,” said Murray. “I’ve only spent a couple of days at home in the last couple of months and I worked tirelessly in Miami in December. When I got here, I spent a lot of time in the gym and in Perth at the Hopman Cup to make sure my body is in the best shape it could be.
“I’m just really happy my body isn’t hindering me. I feel much, much stronger than I did this time last year. My back is better than it was for most of last year, so I’m happy about that.”
Fit and healthy, back to his best and happy in his own skin, the very grown up Murray knows that he has a lot to look forward to in the coming months.