Murray’s defeat was no choking matter
Andy Murray’s Wimbledon loss had more to do with Rafa Nadal’s brilliance than with Murray’s inner demons.
Did Andy Murray choke against Rafa Nadal in their Wimbledon semi-final? Listen, I’m the first person to hurl the c-word at British sporting failures. They’re bottlers, losers, flops and chokers, the lot of them. We’ve seen it too often on the big sporting stages. Failure sometimes seems to be hardwired into the British sporting culture. But this week I’ve repeatedly found myself defending Andy Murray against the charge of choking. I think it’s too simplistic to say that the game was won and lost in Murray’s head. He was outclassed by Rafa Nadal, not defeated by stage fright.
The manner of Murray’s defeat – winning the first set but suffering a dramatic collapse in the second set from which he never really recovered – appeared to bear all the hallmarks of a choke. The turning point came early in the second set. First Murray squandered an easy forehand which would have given him two break points on the Nadal serve. In the next game, he doubled faulted, missed an easy smash and his own serve was broken. From that point on, Murray’s game fell apart – he lost seven games on the trot. His first serve percentage, which was over 70 per cent in the first set, fell below 50 per cent. By the time Nadal took the third set, it was evident that Murray was beaten.
British commentators were divided over whether this technically constituted a choke. ‘Not a choker. Not a failure. Just not as good as Nadal’, declared a Guardian headline. ‘I don’t believe there are failings in his character. He just got beaten by a better man,’ said BBC pundit Andrew Castle. Simon Barnes in The Times, although careful to avoid the c-word, described Murray’s second-set collapse as ‘tennis suicide’ and a ‘clear, almost a flamboyant failure of nerve’. ‘What happened?’ asked Barnes. ‘Did he look down, realise how high he had climbed and get dizzy?’
Clearly there was a significant psychological component to Murray’s defeat. But did he bottle it? If a sportsperson fails to perform to their potential under pressure then we tend to describe every example of this, rather glibly, as choking? As I wrote on spiked a couple of weeks ago, there is a substantial body of academic literature on the phenomenon of choking. Sian Bielock, a US psychologist and leading choke theoretician, was in no doubt what had happened to the British No.1. ‘Murray became a classic victim of “the choke” yesterday’, Bielock wrote in the Sun. ‘Under pressure, you can over-think and analyse your own performance. I call it the paralysis of analysis. Playing in front of a home crowd is great, but studies show it can backfire. All that support makes you self-conscious of what you’re doing.’
Is that what happened to Murray? Did he suddenly wilt under the weight of the nation’s expectations? Did the genteel cries of ‘Come on Andy’ give him the yips? It doesn’t seem plausible to me that the Centre Court support, which appeared to inspire him in the first set, should paralyse him in the second. Surely we need a better explanation than that? I think there are clear-cut cases of choking, such as Rory McIlroy’s Masters meltdown, where a sportsman’s composure and technique falls apart with victory in sight. Murray’s defeat to Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open probably counts as a choke too. The Scotsman failed to perform on the big occasion. A cast-iron example of choking.
But Murray’s semi-final collapse against Nadal isn’t so cut and dried. Attaching the choker label implies that Murray was beaten by his own loss of nerve. This is wrong on two counts. Firstly, although Murray was on top after winning the first set the finishing line was nowhere near in sight. Secondly, and this is the crucial point, there were three parties in this relationship: Murray, his self-belief and Rafa Nadal. Sure his composure went AWOL in the second set, but we shouldn’t ignore Nadal’s role. Tennis is a psychological battle par excellence. It is a game in which the balance of power or momentum can shift very quickly. One player grows in confidence and raises his game and, consequently, his opponent starts to doubt himself and make mistakes: the dialectics of choking.
Murray’s level of performance, intensity and concentration clearly dropped in the second set. He started netting his first serves and making unforced errors. It’s a familiar Murray trait and against lesser players he might have got away with it. But this is Nadal we’re talking about. If you give him a sniff you’re in trouble. Sure enough Murray slipped and Nadal pounced. He took advantage of Murray’s mistakes, took control of the rallies, put the British player’s serve under pressure and, in doing so, altered the psychological dynamic of the match. Astonishingly, Nadal didn’t make a single unforced error in the second set and made only three in the rest of the match. Once Nadal finds his rhythm it’s impossible for most mortals to live with him. Murray lost his self-belief but it wasn’t a solipsistic process. Nadal battered him and broke his resolve.
Andy Murray is an exceptional tennis player but continues to fall tantalisingly short of greatness. I’m sure that lack of self-belief plays some part in Murray’s failure to win on the biggest stage but this isn’t the whole story. Murray needs to work on maintaining his concentration and focus for longer periods, he needs to work on his second serve and he needs to vary his tactics a bit more. For armchair psychologists to brand him a choker because he lost to Rafael Nadal is fatuous, simplistic and grossly unfair.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.