For the third consecutive year, white hot world number one Novak Djokovic claimed this year’s ATP Tour Finals crown and consolidated the apparent ownership of his top spot in the rankings, at least until the beginning of 2015. However, the glory of this prestigious ‘three-peat’ was slightly overshadowed by other dramas which played out when the unique tournament took place at the O2 Arena in London.
Just like the closing night of a vastly commercialized West End show, the Tour Finals should be the slick, highclass finale of Tennis’ season-long run in the theatres. But, a series of plot twists including the premature demise of home favourite Andy Murray, the final day retirement of leading man Roger Federer and a vaguely pantomime climax gave the 2014 production plenty of extra talking points. I want to review the fall of our Scottish protaganist, Murray.
Early this year, British number one Murray learned that the climb back to top form and fitness would be a very long one after undergoing back surgery in late 2013. Apart from the bonus of matching his best performance at the French Open – reaching the Semi-finals befor meeting claycourt master Rafael Nadal – the first half of 2014 was a period very much lacking in positives for the Scot who dropped out of the world’s top ten for the first time since 2008 in September. However, victories (the first under new coach, Amelie Mauresmo) in Shenzhen, Vienna and Valencia capped off a resurgent autumn and saw Murray finish the ‘Race to London’ ranked inside the all-important top eight.
But, despite the apparent rejuvenation of the ex-Wimbledon and US Open champion’s game, the recent 6-0, 6-1 humiliation at the hands of Roger Federer provided a sobering end to Murray’s challenge in London and to a wholly torrid season. Regardless of the magnificence of Federer’s performance – which was his best this year “by far” according to his coach Stefan Edberg – the nature of Murray’s capitulation has had many tennis pundits calling for the Dunblane man to reassess each aspect of his game in the close-season. Particularly his head.
A far more emotional and temperamental Andy Murray has been on court in the past year. The odd moan after a stray shot was frequently replaced by a ballad of self-loathing reminiscent of the naïve rising star of almost a decade ago. Yet, this evidence of a downgrade in mentality, whilst stemming from a frustrating lack of post surgery fitness, has surely been amplified by the parting of Murray and former coach Ivan Lendl back in March.
I do not doubt the credentials as much as the authority that rookie coach Amelie Mauresmo commands, as compared to the steely Lendl. Sports psychologist Don Macpherson rightfully illustrates:
“When Murray looks up at his team and his monkey mind is just about to shout abuse, he suddenly sees the brooding, unsmiling Lendl, and the monkey backs down every time … out of respect.”
Numerous fist-pumps and murmurs of encouragement from the stands are no use to a perfectionist. Murray requires a source of discipline that threatens him to focus – some thing which I doubt Mauresmo can effectively provide for more than one reason.
A simple argument to make would be that the Frenchwoman never quite fulfilled her own potential as a player, winning only two Grand-slams despite spending 39 weeks as world number one during two impressive spells. An inability to handle pressure on the big stage was a recognised flaw for Mauresmo who was regarded by tennis royalty Virginia Wade to be “a little fragile mentally”.
By contrast, Ivan Lendl was once labelled “the game’s greatest overachiever” by Tennis Magazine in reference to his ability to grind out results against any opponent en route to eight Grand Slams.
A more complex reasoning behind Murray’s appointment of Mauresmo was the change that a female coach would bring to the Brit’s routine and how this would affect his game, with specific reference made to his “emotions” in a press conference in June. I would argue, nonetheless, that the selection of a female coach is simply a retreat to normality for Murray who was coached by his mother, Judy, until the age of 17. Surrounding himself with the right people is obviously important, but a distinct lack of grit, focus and consistency against strong opponents this season could prove that this extra comfort inspires complacency.
“There’s no denying how much it hurts,” wrote Murray in his BBC Sport column last week, after being humbled by a flawless Federer in London – exacerbating his 0-9 record against the world’s top three players in 2014.
“The good thing is I now have time to think about a few things and then go and work on them,” he said.
Indeed the decisions and changes made by the British ace in tennis’s month of hibernation will be vital in determining his success in 2015. An intense training regime in his beloved Miami should sweep aside the fitness woes of the previous season and hopefully clear Murray’s head of such burdening self-doubt that has prevented him from dominating the stage at recent Grand Slams but whether Mauresmo has a role to play in this act of resurrection, I’m not so sure.