Andy Murray: it’s the technique wot won it
More major victories await the Scot, whose change of style as much as his shift in attitude is putting him on top.
At the US Open men’s singles final on Monday, a marked change in Andy Murray’s attitude played a big part in his first Grand Slam tournament win. But some significant technical changes were evident, too.
Much of the talk about Murray has focused on his surly attitude, his supposed antipathy towards ‘England’ and the now-famous ‘Murray moment’ after losing at Wimbledon this year, when he was lauded for crying in public and giving us stiff-upper-lipped Brits a lesson in emotional correctness. However, how Murray improved the technical aspects of his game in order to win first the Olympic gold medal and then one of the four major tournaments – the other three being Wimbledon and the French and Australian Opens – has hardly been discussed outside of the tennis world.
The way the tennis elite plays has changed significantly over the past 20 years. There has been a shift away from serve-and-volley, attacking netplay and strings of aces on the serve, which is an approach typified by Nineties tennis giants Boris Becker and Pete Sampras. During the 1990s, the all-out power games with very short rallies were being neutralised. Andre Agassi was able to return all but the best-placed serves and subsequently was instrumental in ushering in this new era. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, those able to first ‘cushion’ the ball, and then switch to attack and drive through the shot, held sway. First, Leyton Hewitt, then subsequently Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, became, in different ways, masters of this technique. The rallies became longer with fewer errors. And the power was turned up to near maximum. At the same time, ‘touch’ shots reappeared and players had to add variety by mixing up both pace and spin. It was in this new space of touch and absorbing the opponent’s shot that Murray began to emerge and flourish.
Technically, what had prevented Murray from beating the top three players was a lack of aggressive play early in the rally and not enough winning shots. Murray has been able to use his talent and ability to play effective defensive strokes and then go for the winning shot. This new, more assertive strategy is now allowing him to challenge the most talented trio in tennis history: Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
Former world number one Ivan Lendl, who became Murray’s coach this year, encouraged him to become more aggressive. Murray moved from defence to attack on each individual shot. He ‘cushioned’ the shot by first bending his legs and leaning back, and then moved forward to drive the ball through. In addition, Lendl helped build confidence in the flatter, more direct strokes where Murray struck the ball earlier – and Murray was encouraged to do this earlier in the rally.
Murray always had a very strong defensive base, something he learned in Spain at the Barcelona Academy. But Lendl helped build confidence in using more attacking strokes. It nearly came together at the Wimbledon final, but Murray’s first-serve percentage was way too low to beat Federer. One month later at the Olympics, a higher first-serve percentage, combined with a switch from defence to offence, led to straight-sets wins over first Djokovic in the semi-final and then over Federer. He looks set to become much better at taking this approach – so much so that I predict he will win three of the four majors next year. (Nadal is practically untouchable on the clay courts at the French Open.)
Murray’s legacy, and the impact he will have on British tennis, remains to be seen. The challenge is to create more Murrays. Unlike the Spanish, French and now the Germans, Murray is isolated. He is the only Brit in the top 100 tennis players. British tennis needs a much higher number of talented and competitive teenagers and a better coaching environment. The first port of call needs to be to challenge the ambivalence we have towards competition in the UK, which still persists despite Team GB’s Olympics gold rush having temporarily suspended it. Whether we have the will to do this is another question.