Andy Murray inspects my ageing racket with curiosity, as if it were a primitive pot made 10,000 years ago. “Is this yours? Did you borrow it?” he asks in his clipped but amiable Scots tones. (Murray is much nicer in person than his famously unsmiling exterior suggests.)
We’re on an indoor court at London’s Queen’s Club, where the Aegon Championships begin next week. Prior to our interview, Britain’s best tennis player since the second world war has agreed to hit a few serves at me. I stand behind the baseline in jeans, praying that I will see the ball. Murray has experience of hitting to sponsors and other jokers. He starts with a gentle one straight to my forehand. I return it.
That won’t happen again. It’s not that Murray then goes all-out. After all, success on the tennis tour is the art of energy conservation. He simply runs through his repertoire and I am humbled. I think I have his slice serve covered when it suddenly attacks me, bouncing into my chest. Another serve changes its mind at the last moment and runs away from me. And his flat, hard ones bounce an inch inside the white lines and shoot off before I can move. What strikes me is the variety of his excellence: each serve is distinct from the others, yet each has to be good enough to beat Rafael Nadal. I’ve briefly entered the realm of someone who strives for perfection, and sometimes even gets there, whereas the rest of us (whatever the business books claim) just try to be pretty good.
Murray needs only one thing to certify his perfection. “The last goal I want to try and achieve,” he says, as we settle in the players’ chairs beside our court, “is to win a Grand Slam.” No British man has won Wimbledon (or the French, US or Australian Opens) since Fred Perry in 1936. Murray’s management company, Simon Fuller’s XIX Entertainment, is salivating at the thought of what the Scot would be worth if he did it. The next few weeks offer Murray two chances – first at the French (he was just about to play the quarter final against Juan Ignacio Chela at time of press), then Wimbledon – that an actuary would say are among the best of his career. If he’s going to win one, now is the most likely time.
It was at Wimbledon in 2005 that Britons first realised that Murray might be Perry’s successor. He was an unknown teenager then, ranked about 350th in the world, a habitué of junior events. “I’d been playing in front of 10 people and you’re quite tense when you’re not playing in front of anyone and you’re still trying to make a career out of the sport,” he recalls. “Then I got to Wimbledon and I managed to win a couple of matches and I played on Court 2, then Court 1, then Centre Court, and that was what I’d always wanted to do. I got that belief that actually, yes, I can do this. That was probably when tennis was at its most fun for me.”
That’s because immediately afterwards the pressure began. Tennis epitomises the problem of British expectations: today’s performers get measured against the achievements of the age of empire and look piffling by comparison. The tendency is exacerbated at Wimbledon, a place where everything evokes the heyday of British rule, from the royal box to the quote from Kipling above the entrance to centre court. Murray’s former coach Mark Petchey once told him: “I don’t envy you as a person. You’re going to be incredibly successful and yet often you’re going to read stuff that makes you sound like a failure.”
Three times Murray has tantalised his country by reaching the final of a Grand Slam. The first time, at the US Open in 2008, passed by in a haze, he admits. “It seemed like it happened really quickly. I’d played the semifinals with Nadal, and we finished quite late. Then I played the final the following day.” This year and last, he lost the final of the Australian Open. Did he enjoy his biggest matches? “I’ve found it difficult. I need to make sure I enjoy those situations, and enjoy the pressures that come with it, because when you look back you don’t want to think I was there playing in the biggest events in the world and I was miserable.”
Murray is now ranked fourth in the world, and is one of Europe’s richest athletes: he has earned perhaps $15m in prize money over his career, and about that sum again in commercial income. Professionally, though, he remains unfulfilled. Until now his excuse has been youth. But that no longer applies. In his autobiography Coming of Age Murray quotes a sheet of statistics produced by a member of his staff, Mark Little. “It showed every player in the Top 100 and their rankings since they were teenagers,” Murray writes. “The average age for peaking was 23 to 25. That makes sense to me.” Murray turned 24 on May 15.
When I remind him of the estimate, he revises it to give himself more time: “I’ve always felt like at 23, 24, 25 up to 28, 29 is when I would be at my peak.” That would leave him another 20 or so Grand Slams to win something.
However, Little’s more miserly estimate may be more accurate. Andy Roddick, David Nalbandian, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Lleyton Hewitt, all contenders until their mid-twenties, are now also-rans. If Murray is going to do it, it probably needs to be soon. His bipartite patella – a kneecap that remains on two separate bones, instead of fusing into one like most people’s – might militate against a long career.
The first question is where he might win that Slam. His countrymen hope it’s Wimbledon, which can’t make the tournament very relaxing. Still, the national expectation has its uses. He says, “I know if I screw up I’m going to get rammed, so my preparation has always been really good for Wimbledon. I actually feel relaxed at Wimbledon and ready to play, but it’s the buildup to the tournament – press commitments, time with sponsors – that can be a bit stressful.” What makes it particularly stressful is that the British media is much less interested in his tennis than in his press conferences. Murray says, “You’re not wanting to slip up and say something like, ‘Federer’s past it’ or ‘Nadal’s got bad knees.’” That’s why this thoughtful speaker expertly exudes tedium in his public statements.
Does Wimbledon’s grass suit him? “I don’t feel like Wimbledon is my surface. I feel that the hard courts are because that’s what I grew up playing on, that’s where I do all of my training over in the States.” The US and Australian Opens are played on hard courts.
On the other hand, he points out, nobody on tour is familiar with grass. “No one grows up playing on it any more. I find it difficult going on to clay courts, whereas grass courts I actually like. I think my style is fine for grass. I hit the ball flat, which is good for grass. I slice, I can get a lot of free points from my first serve. I might not serve and volley like all the guys used to, but no one does now, and Nadal winning at Wimbledon I think proves the game has changed and you can play any way to win on that surface now.”
The next question is what he needs to improve in order to win. Critics often say that he needs to play more attacking tennis. Murray usually rejects that analysis. His long hunt for a new coach (he’s already gone through four in his professional career) may betoken his reluctance to let anyone change his game. But he does admit he has had to work on his concentration. Tennis, a stop-start game that goes on for hours, in which the crowd can shout things that get under your skin, is almost designed to distract players.
His mental game, he admits, “is the one thing I have needed to get better at. You know, I got to number two in the world. It’s not a major issue. If you look at some of my matches from three or four years ago to now, I’m a lot calmer on the court. It’s something that if the best guys are a 10, then I might be an eight.”
How might he take it to a 10? “I’ve spoken to a lot of other players about it, and everyone says the same thing: no one can really concentrate for four hours in a row without thinking about other things or losing it for a little bit. It’s about getting it back as quickly as possible, and not letting it drag on to two or three games.” The key, he thinks, is to have the same pre-match routine – the same music, warm-up and so on – to avoid “confusing your body”. Murray, a boxing nut, is trying to learn concentration from boxers. “They can get themselves hurt if they’re not totally switched on for the whole fight.”
The last question is whom he would beat to win his Slam. Very specifically, now that Federer is 29: can Murray beat his contemporaries Nadal and Novak Djokovic in the final of a Grand Slam? Nadal in particular, 11 months his senior, has been Murray’s measure since they were about 13. He says: “When you know someone from a young age, you feel if they’re doing it that you can as well. The only difference was that he did mature physically very, very young and it took me quite a lot of time to catch up.”
Nadal has the good luck to be a lefthander, a type that most opponents aren’t used to. But Murray has the good luck to have spent half his childhood playing against a lefthander: his elder brother Jamie, who today plays on the doubles tour. “I actually prefer playing against them because of my brother,” Murray says now.
Then there’s Djokovic, just seven days younger than Murray. “He’s essentially, I think, a counter-puncher,” says Murray, using the word that’s often applied to his own style. “I’ve won against Djokovic three times, Rafa four or five times and Federer seven or eight times, so I know I can beat them, but what I need to start doing now is doing it all the time.” Right now Murray is in a position where he could plausibly win a Slam if his rivals are injured or slip up, just as Juan Martin del Potro won the US Open in 2009. But he hasn’t yet made a Slam an inevitability.
We’ve finished talking. I apologise for my incompetence on court, and blather something about not having played in ages. “It’s the same with me and golf,” he sympathises, pretending that we’re similar. Then he takes off his shirt for the photographer, and you look for the superman you know he is. Great tennis players belong to a different species than the rest of us. Someone serving at 125 miles per hour puts so much pull on his arm that if he were a normal human, the arm might simply snap, or fly out of its socket. The greats are protected by their corset of muscle.
But looking at Murray, you don’t immediately see a superman. He remains surprisingly slight, with little of Nadal’s coiled muscle. The sunburn from the elbows down adds to the impression of a mere mortal. Of course there’s no fat on him, which is why over the course of a tennis season he loses 8kg in pure muscle. However, his perfect shape is understated. All that British hope rests on a pair of slim shoulders.
Andy Murray will compete in the Aegon Championships at The Queen’s Club, June 6-12 2011. For more information, go to www.aegonchampionships.com