Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Festival Of Maybes

Reaching a Grand Slam final is a big damn achievement. Even if you lose, simply reaching the final is something massive. Ask Marcos Baghdatis. Ask Fernando Gonzalez. Ask Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Ask Guillermo Coria, Arnaud Clement, Martin Verkerk, Mariano Puerta. Even though these players all lost the one Slam final they made, I'd bet that loss still rates as the high point of their career - and that their runner up cookie tray is one of their most prized possessions.

Andy Murray has three cookie trays now. And I'd say that getting those cookie trays probably rate as some of his worst memories ever.

Let's revisit Murray's three Slam finals. His first one was in the US Open, 2008. He faced some dude called Roger Federer, who was going for his fifth consecutive US Open crown. Federer had not had his bestest year ever - he hadn't won a Slam yet - and a year without a Federer Slam, well... the world was definitely not ready for that to happen in 2008. Federer had the experience and knew how to win a Slam, especially in New York. Murray was green and maybe a little tired coming off his two day big win over Rafa Nadal. And also beating Nadal and Federer back to back? You'd have to be a wizard to do that.

Murray went down in straights. But not everyone can be Roger or Rafa and win in their first ever Slam final. Djokovic lost the final of the US Open in 2007 in straights before going on to win the Australian Open in 2008. Surely it was only a matter of time for Murray.

But then he didn't make a single Slam final in 2009. Oh well. It's still only a matter of time. Murray has got the goods. He will win a Slam. This was hammered into our heads over and over again. It's not a question of whether, but of when.

Australian Open, 2010. Murray makes the final playing absolutely scintillating tennis. And who is waiting there for him? Roger Federer again. But this time, Murray is ready. Oh yeah. He's pumped. He knows it's only a matter of time before he wins a Slam. And he can take Federer. He's beaten him a bunch of times before. He can do it again. This is his moment - the Murray moment.

Except it's not.

Roger Federer takes Andy Murray to school. Straight sets, down Murray goes. He shows a flicker of life in the third set tiebreaker, but it is too little, too late. There is no performing CPR on this match. The trophy is in Federer's hands and once again, Murray holds the cookie tray. And then he enters a slump so pervasive that it takes him till around Wimbledon to recover.

But he's still going to win a Slam. It doesn't happen in 2010, but it's still going to happen. Maybe the break he took was too long. Maybe he should have come back sooner. There is a festival of maybes.

And one of the maybes that starts to creep in is this one - maybe Andy Murray won't ever win a Slam.

But no. It's 2011. It's a new year, a new Murray. He's recovered from the scars of last year and he is playing magic tennis. He is cutting through the draw like a hot knife through butter, and destiny seems to be on his side. Soderling is swept from his path. Nadal is swept from his path. He has a couple of tough moments with Dolgopolov and Ferrer, but it is largely a ticker tape parade straight to the final.

And it's Djokovic he's facing this time. Only Djokovic, people want to say. It's not a finals thing Murray has - he's won tons of finals! He has a bag full of Masters and 500s and 250s. No, it's just a Federer thing. Federer lights up when he gets to finals. Murray can take Djokovic. Only Djokovic.

Except he couldn't. I don't know if anyone could have taken Djokovic down in this tournament, but Murray was barely there at all. The dude that showed up in the final was not the normal Andy Murray. It was the scared little boy that got his arse kicked by Federer.

If Andy Murray - the Andy Murray, the one that has been in the top five for about 150,000 years now - showed up in a Slam final, he would have a fighting chance. But I've never seen him. Not even once. And while there are plenty of great players who have never won a Slam, the effects of these finals on Murray is affecting his normal play. We saw the long slump after the Australian Open final this year. Now Murray has just gone down to Baghdatis in Rotterdam.

One loss is not that big a deal. But when you look at the way Murray's 2010 played out after the Australian Open, this is not a great sign for 2011.

Murray's first Slam final loss was not, I think, that big a deal. He was new and green and one Slam loss to a guy like Federer is very honourable. I think the rot really set in in 2010, and that scar tissue has lasted a lot longer than we thought. And now that Murray's lost to a guy not named Roger Federer in a Slam final, who knows what could happen?

It's an awful thing to say, but in a way, Murray's career might be better if he stopped making those Slam finals. The cookie trays are not for him a prize, but a burden - a reminder of how close he came and how he didn't come through. They're a tangible sign of failure - because for him, I think, not winning must feel like a failure, even though just making the final is a massive, incredible achievement.

We all know that I'm not a massive Murray fan, but I don't want to join the litany of media condemning him. I fully believe that Andy Murray can win a Slam. He has the game and the brain and the tools he needs. But the first thing he needs to do is to somehow shed this scar tissue and turn up. Even if he turns up and loses, I think that would be better. If he'd turned up against Djokovic and still lost, I don't think the pain would have been so bad. But if he turns up, there is a lot of Slam finals he can win. The turning up is the problem.

He needs to get rid of the maybe - the maybe is what is killing him. Because the more people say 'maybe Andy Murray will win a Slam' (or worse, 'maybe he won't') that pressure is going to continue to mount.

No comments: