June 6, 2015
First of all, you have to salute Novak Djokovic for beating Andy Murray yet again, and in doing so ending the Brit’s hopes of taking a Grand Slam he hasn’t won before.
The 6-3, 6-3, 5-7, 5-7, 6-1 scoreline tells the basic story. The first two sets were ridiculously easy for Djokovic. So was the last. Murray demonstrated his huge ability in the third and fourth, but then faded again with victory potentially beckoning.
It was almost as though he didn’t feel he deserved what he had almost earned the hard way. Murray took his eye off the ball, he didn’t go for the jugular when it mattered, he fell flat mentally and virtually offered his chin for the knock-out blow in his very first service game in the final set. Is there an inferiority complex at work here?
It is so frustrating that Murray didn’t bring his best game from the start of this match, that he wasn’t sufficiently fired up, because ultimately it cost him. He left himself a mountain to climb and then, when he actually climbed it against the odds, he slipped off the edge, as if uncomfortable to share the summit with the great Djokovic.
So the two players with the most mental toughness at Roland Garros this fortnight are in the final: Novak and the gutsy Stan Wawrinka – and deservedly so.
‘It was very difficult but I had the right intensity and the first game or two of the fifth set was very important,’ Djokovic said.
But Andy knew that too, didn’t he?
Murray is clearly lacking in psychological preparation, if he can start so slowly in such a big match and later blow up instead of sustaining the pressure.
And if he is to give himself a fighting chance of beating Novak at Wimbledon – something he did to win the title in 2013 – Murray has to change his mindset from the get-go.
Here is where Andy is currently lacking:
Against Djokovic, Murray no longer seems to be powered by genuine and sustained self-belief. Something suddenly has to go his way to change his mind, and even that improvement is often temporary. That’s an absurd state of affairs for someone with a similar amount of natural ability as the Serb. It is almost as if Murray now steps out on court knowing he will lose, ultimately, against Novak – an unacceptable approach for any sportsman, let alone one who is capable of victory.
2/ SUSTAINED AGGRESSION
Murray needs real aggression from the start, some genuine fire in the belly, not that self-flagellating, watery form of anger he has become so known for. OK, we get it. Deep down Andy isn’t angry, he is happy in his personal life. Great. So is Novak, though. That doesn’t stop Djokovic from getting mean and going toe-to-toe with the tough guys from start to finish, giving everything he has to come out on top. That’s the gladiatorial nature of tennis. You have to scrap as though your life depends on it from the first game until the last, not just for two sets in five.
3/ SHOT SELECTION
Murray’s fatal love affair with the drop shot seems to blind him to Novak’s incredible athleticism. It’s simply unlikely to pay off for Andy, so why persevere with a losing tactic against a man who just loves to chase the ball down? And besides, if you are generally playing a defensive game against Djokovic, instead of bravely and consistently looking for winners, there will only be one victor. When Murray increased his aggression for two sets, the results were more than encouraging. So why not from the start? And why not at the end?
At key points during the first, second and fifth sets, Murray’s execution of relatively simple shots was dreadful. This suggests he is now reluctant to embrace the pressure during the biggest moments in a massive match, those moments that should be bringing the best out of him psychologically, because they call for composure and ruthlessness when it matters. If he could do it in the third and fourth, why couldn’t he do it in the first, second and fifth?
It all amounts to a lack of consistency in his self-belief, indicative of a cosy comfort in Murray’s camp, where it appears from the outside that no one has the inclination to confront him and risk their own positions by telling him a few very uncomfortable home truths.
This year Murray had the chance to win the Australian and the French, to complete a Career Slam. What an immense achievement it would have been! No one is saying he should definitely have claimed both titles, though both were certainly there for the taking, with the Scot often dominant in Melbourne and enjoying the momentum in Paris. Could Andy have been hungrier and stronger mentally?
Novak Djokovic is of course a formidable player. But he is only human, and his level dipped in the third and fourth sets against Andy at Roland Garros this year. However, the sad fact is that somewhere in his subconscious, Murray has stopped believing he can build on success during a match and actually beat Novak. Andy seems too in awe of his rival to possess the vital ingredient of true self-confidence. It looks as though he has accepted that the man he has known since they were both children has become truly superior.
Yet Novak can be put under pressure, just like anyone else, as Andy himself proved in the third set and fourth. Djokovic can go through bad patches, especially if he feels the crowd is against him. But he has to be put under sustained attack on a tennis court. That has to be the first objective. Then success may come. You could still lose, it has to be said, because Novak is so good. But if you don’t bring total aggression from start to finish, if you don’t at least try this sustained approach, you have no chance. If you give your best, meet fire with fire in every set and still come off second best to Novak, at least you have gone down fighting. That’s probably how it will be for Stan Wawrinka in the final, too.
But Andy Murray is more naturally talented than Stan Wawrinka – more talented by far. Therefore it is all the more criminal, in purely sporting terms, that Murray does not currently have the winning mentality against the very best, lacks the burning desire to make the most of his talent, and build on his successes during a massive match, when those successes finally come.
Perhaps Murray will take confidence from the number of times he troubled Djokovic at Roland Garros. He should also have taken such confidence form Australia. It is about time Murray believed again, had faith in the phenomenal sporting powers he possesses.
We’d like to think Murray will return to Wimbledon all the more determined, after coming so close again in France. Nothing would give us greater pleasure than to see him makes it Third Slam Lucky for 2015. But he has to change his mindset against Djokovic in order to achieve that. Who is going to have the courage to tell him, for his own good?