Andy Murray had his best career year in 2012, winning the Olympic gold and his first Slam at the US Open. We discuss what to expect from the World No. 3 in this week’s Changeover Chat, a quick back-and-forth exchange between the writing staff at The Changeover.
Amy: Andy Murray’s 2012 was pretty interesting. Up until the Olympics, things were rough. He had just lost a heartbreaking Wimbledon final, and had won just one small title in Brisbane to start the year. But then he turned things around and won the Olympic gold and his first Grand Slam title. Even though he probably had the most inconsistent year of his career, it was definitely his best.
He also managed to turn the narrative upside down. Usually he was the guy who performed great in Masters 1000s but couldn’t win Slams. This year, he performed poorly at Masters 1000s, but came up big in the most important tournaments.
Juan José: Is it fair to say he had the strangest year of his career, which doubled as his best? I’ve always thought that he was the exception to the norm in terms of career titles. Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic all won a couple Masters 1000 titles before winning a Slam. Murray won eight of them before winning his first Slam. And the year he finally wins a big one, he ends up without a single Masters 1000 title, even though he did make two finals (Miami and Shanghai). His titles/finals page is just strange.
Lindsay: It’s very confusing and I don’t really know what to make of it, but that’s Andy Murray in a nutshell. Losses to Gasquet and Raonic in Masters, but he peaked at the Slams.
Amy: I’ve always found Murray hard to assess. He has such highs and lows. Remember his awful post-Australian Open slump in 2011, after making the final there? He lost in three consecutive opening matches to Marcos Baghdatis, Donald Young, and Alex Bogomolov Jr.
It’s kind of how he plays in matches, too. He can play brilliantly, and then just implode. Or he can come out and play like a qualifier for two sets and win a match in five sets, like he did in his 2011 US Open match against Robin Haase.
Juan José: Murray also lost to Jerzy Janowicz, Jeremy Chardy and *drumroll please* Guillermo García López in Masters 1000s this year.
Lindsay: That is quite the honor roll. You’re right Amy – he is so unpredictable compared to the other top guys. He also has the kind of game that if he’s a little bit off his entire game goes off the rails. There’s no such thing as faking it because his entire game centers on focus.
Amy: That’s why I always struggled with the “Big Four” term, up until he finally won that Slam. There’s something there that separates him from the others.
Juan José: To me, he had won enough Masters 1000 titles and made enough Slam finals to be a part of the select group, but it was much easier to talk about the Big Four with Murray as a “real” member after the US Open. Again, he had won eight Masters 1000 titles before this year. That’s three more than Roddick, and three more than Safin.
Lindsay: Yeah, and he had also made so many Grand Slam semifinals too. Murray had made 10 Slam semifinals before the US Open, and been in four finals.
Juan José: What I always found bizarre is Murray’s rivalry with Federer.
Amy: Yup. They have a practically even head-to-head, but Murray has never beaten Federer at a Slam.
Juan José: I mean … that’s just strange. And it’s not like their Slam matches were all that close, either.
Amy: I think it goes back to the minor flaws in Murray’s game. In the Wimbledon final, he was playing amazingly well for one set, and Federer just adjusted. Or Murray’s level went down. Federer outlasted him. He has no problem beating Federer in best of three, but sustaining that level can be problematic for him.
However, winning his first Slam in five sets against Djokovic was really promising. He lost the plot for a bit, but he came back to win that crucial fifth set. I’d say that’s an encouraging sign for Murray in future big matches.
Juan José: That’s the other thing, when I watch Federer and Murray play, it seems to me that Federer has the obvious edge in the match-up, since he handles Murray’s crosscourt backhand well, and Murray finds it hard to get back in points when Federer attacks his forehand corner. In a way, the Wimbledon final made perfect sense: Federer had enough safe places to go on the court, and Murray couldn’t find ways to hurt him. And then they played at the Olympics and Murray killed him. Same in Shanghai. But then in the World Tour Finals, the dynamic moved back to the Wimbledon final.
Amy: I can’t discount Federer’s marathon match against Del Potro as a factor in the Olympics. However, Murray’s level was extremely high in the Olympic gold medal match, and stayed that way throughout.
Juan José: That’s true – that Del Potro match lasted forever.
Lindsay: One thing I’ve noticed is that Murray is not the best at adjusting mid-match.
Amy: Or he adjusts in the wrong direction. He’s doing the right thing, and departs from his game plan.
Juan José: The problem with Murray is that his confidence seems to waver dramatically within a match, and it gets in the way of problem solving during them. What’s worse, his confidence seems to be walking a tightrope even when things are going well.
Lindsay: Exactly. Often either his opponent finds another level – higher (the Wimbledon final against Federer) or lower (the Haase match at the 2011 US Open). But Murray usually comes out firing or flailing and stays that way for the match.
Amy: Maybe it goes back to that infamous Federer quote from 2008 about Murray being passive. He has so much talent, but playing aggressively has to be a conscious effort.
Juan José: I think the “passive” label was (and sometimes still is) deserved: Murray tends to arrive to some matches trying to outlast the opposition, almost daring the other guy to hit the ball past him. He just seems to enjoy winning matches that way.
Lindsay: He is so, so sensitive, and it’s really hard to watch him battle with himself on court. Sometimes you can almost see the angel and devil fighting over his brain during the matches and I’m afraid he’s going to break in two. His famous Muzzologues — entertaining as they are — never really seem to help him. Everything is a fight.
Juan José: In a way, he’s a contrarian: everyone says that he should win one way, so he’ll naturally do the opposite. He’s said as much in the past, and only with Lendl on board has he been consistently more aggressive.
Amy: I remember sitting courtside for a match of his in Cincinnati back in 2011. He was screaming, “Kill me!” at himself. And he was a few games away from winning the match in straight sets.
Lindsay: There is something so masochistic about his tennis sometimes.
Juan José: Masochistic is a great word, Linz. Murray does get on court sometimes ready to battle his opponent and himself. And the problem for him is that a favorable result on the court doesn’t correlate into a positive result against himself, as Amy noted from her experience in Cincinnati.
I wonder if Murray would have this same demeanor if he had a better forehand. Yes, he improved that shot a lot in 2012, but before that he used it sparingly to create offense for himself and try to win points. It was nothing more than a rally shot. And it seems to me that guys love to take their confidence from their forehand and the ability to impose themselves over someone with that shot. Maybe in his mind he knows that his margin of error is small, so any little mistake can truly derail any good momentum. And there is no big shot coming to bail him out.
Amy: I don’t think his mentality will change, regardless of results or improvements in his game. He’ll always be the same that way. He suffers through matches, and he likes it that way.
Lindsay: In his match against Gasquet in Rome this year he repeatedly screamed “I hate this game, I hate it!” (Thanks to @nolesfan2011 for reminding me of the specific match.) He has this twisted relationship with himself and the sport, similar to that of a tortured artist. And just like painters who can only paint when they feel pain, or writers who can only write at 3 AM after being awake for 24 hours stewing over their work, Murray seems to equate tennis with agony and angst. That’s his comfort zone. As much as we as outsiders want to change that because it looks so torturous, perhaps it’s just time to accept this about him. I wrote earlier this year about how I have started to embrace Murray for all the things I used to hate, such as the on-court demeanor and inconsistencies. I now realize that it’s all a part of a bigger picture.
Amy: Well said, Lindsay. I think it’s part of Murray’s appeal. So what do we expect from Murray this year? I have said that I think he’ll win a Slam, but you guys were a little less gung-ho on his Slam prospects for 2013.
Lindsay: I think he will win another Slam or two but because of his inconsistencies it’s hard for me to see a gate opening up and a flood of Slams pouring through. As we talked about above, everything with Murray is a struggle, so I see him remaining a factor but not necessarily riding off into the sunset as the newest king of tennis.
Amy: One of the big reasons I see Murray winning a Slam this year is because Nadal will be less of a factor, at least for the first part of the year. Especially on hard courts, of course it will raise Murray’s chances of winning another.
Lindsay: That’s a good point, Amy. I think if he does win a Slam this year it will be Oz.
Amy: I like his chances in Australia or New York, given the fact that he won his first Slam over Djokovic on hard courts. If you can beat the best hard court player in a Grand Slam final, that’s a pretty good sign for 2013. Wimbledon, of course, is another possibility. He had an amazing grass court season last year.
Juan José: I didn’t pick Murray to win another Slam for a couple of reasons. The main one: I feel like Djokovic is going to have a monster year, and he’s a better hard court player than Murray, so the Australian Open and US Open are out. And I think Nadal will be back at Wimbledon at a good level, and Murray has never found a way through him there. No need to talk about the French Open.
Amy: Well, I don’t think he’s winning the French Open, I agree on that. But I also don’t see Djokovic winning three or four Slams this year. I don’t think he’s his 2011 invincible self, and the other guys are too good to allow such dominance.
Juan José: We’ll see about that! I still think 2013 will be The Year Of The Djoko. Anyway, the other reason I don’t see Murray winning a big one this year is it will take a full season for him to adjust to his new status as a Slam winner and the expectations that it brings. It took Djokovic three years to win his second Slam. It took Safin five years. Roddick never got there. Only Federer and Nadal had a relatively quick path to their second Slam, and it took Nadal a full calendar year.
Amy: Well, the reason it took most of those guys a long time for Slam No. 2 was because of Federer and Nadal being in the way. I’m not sure that’s exactly the case anymore.
Juan José: But Federer and Nadal both won a Slam in 2012 – and Murray has to deal with those two PLUS Djokovic! And Del Potro!
Amy: 2013 Nadal and Federer aren’t the same as peak Nadal and Federer. And Del Potro hasn’t made a Slam semifinal since 2009. There’s plenty of room for Murray.
Juan José: But Del Potro is on the rise. Also, I wouldn’t discount Federer against Murray in a potential semifinal.
Lindsay: Also, Murray is a step above those guys in the consistency department.
Amy: Oh I’m not discounting Federer, Murray still has yet to beat him in a Slam. But Federer isn’t making every final in 2013, nor are Nadal or Del Potro.
Juan José: I actually don’t think Murray will even make a single Slam final this year. But I do think 2014 will be the Year of the Muzzah.
Amy: I totally disagree on that. I think 2013 is a great opportunity for Murray. He’s in the prime of his career, and the weight of expectations isn’t nearly as heavy anymore. I expect him to make two or three Slam finals.
Lindsay: I agree with you, JJ, that I think 2014 will be his year. However, I’d be surprised if he didn’t make a Slam final this year.
Juan José: In 2014, Nadal and Federer won’t be the huge obstacles for Slams anymore, Djokovic will be a little looser after a great 2013, and Del Potro will be Del Potro and having some sort of issue. But more importantly, Murray will have learned some lessons from 2013, and will be ready to get that Lendl mean streak going and take over the tour.
Amy: I won’t make predictions that far in advance. But I’d be absolutely shocked if Murray didn’t reach a single Slam final this year. I find it virtually impossible to imagine a scenario where that happens.
Juan José: One thing I wanted to mention is the very unusual end of the season that Murray went through. He ended up losing in three straight tournaments after having match points in his last match. In Tokyo he had two match points against Raonic in the semifinals (and had been up 4-1 in the third set). In Shanghai he had five match points against Djokovic (and served for it at 5-4 in the second). In Paris, he had one match point against Janowicz (and serve for it at 5-4 in the second once again). Then Murray faded at the World Tour Finals, losing rather tamely to Djokovic and Federer. But out of all of those disappointments, I think the Shanghai match is the one that will take a toll.
Amy: It was a strange end to the season, but I’m not sure if it means anything. Except that he was unlucky. He recently said that stretch during Wimbledon and the Olympics was one of the most mentally stressful times in his career. I believe he was mentally burnt out by the end of the year.
Lindsay: I agree with that. I always feel the end of the season is something that can be encouraging if it’s good, but isn’t too discouraging if it’s bad.
Amy: Of all the parts of the season, the end of the year might be the easiest to discount, for any player, really. You build momentum, and the season’s over and you don’t have time to build on it. Or you fizzle out and come back refreshed in January. I find it very hard to assign real importance to a lot of those wins and losses.
Juan José: Hey, Federer’s run to No. 1 started at the end of 2011. Safin won two M1000 at the end of 2004 and won the Australian Open in 2005. And I think Djokovic’s 2013 started in that fateful Shanghai match.
Amy: Sure, there are exceptions, but it doesn’t happen that often. And you’re assuming a lot about Djokovic’s 2013, before he’s even played an ATP match!
Juan José: Hey, Djokovic was on a five match losing streak against the Big Four until the Shanghai final, and he ended the year on a three match winning streak against them, while taking the World Tour Finals title over Federer. The point is, the end of the year doesn’t always mean anything, but sometimes it does.
Amy: Yup, but I won’t write off Murray’s 2013 based on a few poor results to end an emotionally stressful season. Fact is, he’s won the last two major events in tennis. I just think we’re assigning artificial significance to the burnt out home stretch of Murray’s best career year.
Juan José: Murray is just so fascinating. He’s so talented. So volatile. So unpredictable. Like Nadal says, we gonna see, no? With the way my predictions usually go, Murray will end up winning the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open.
Lindsay: My hopes for Murray in 2013 are that he gets out of his own way, stops with the injury grimace thing, and gets a better kit. I don’t think any of those things will necessarily happen, but that’s what I want. Although I do recognize that this contradicts what I said above … if he stops doing all of those masochistic things, will he really still be Andy Murray?
Amy: Judging by his Australian Open kit, at least one of those things isn’t happening anytime soon. Final thoughts?
Juan José: More than results, I’d love for Murray to continue the development pattern he showed us in 2012 with his forehand. I’d love for him to take that shot even earlier, and go down-the-line more often. And I’d absolutely love it if Murray finally started hitting more down-the-line backhands. Also, the second serve could still improve (no one defends their second serve better than him, though). I think that if Murray stays the course in terms of developing his tennis, it’ll pay off in a big way down the road. Maybe not in 2013, but surely in 2014. And I’d also love it if he stayed out of his own way, like Linz said.
Amy: I’m all for seeing him get out of his own way, which he can do, as he proved in 2012. As for this year, Andy Murray is 25. Some of the guys who stood in his way aren’t as dominant anymore. As a frequent Murray skeptic over the last few years, I expect him to have a great 2013 now that he’s gotten over that Slam hurdle.
Juan José: You know who else is 25 and at his physical peak? The current world No. 1 and five-time Slam winner! I tell you, The Year Of The Djoko is upon us!
Lindsay: One more thing worth mentioning … Murray didn’t have the most difficult Grand Slam draws this year. It’s not something to blame him for and certainly isn’t asterisk-worthy, but it’s worth noting that in the Grand Slams he never had to face two other members of the Big Four, which is often what it takes to win. In fact, his only two top 5 Slam wins this year were over Tsonga in the Wimbledon semis and Djokovic in the US Open final. Before the US Open final he didn’t have a victory against the Big Four at a Major all year. It’s possibly he gets breaks like that in 2013 — especially with Nadal questionable — but not a given. Things aren’t getting any easier, and we’ll just have to wait and see how he responds.