Watching Andy Murray has rarely been a relaxing pastime for his fans. Even at the peak of his powers Murray was involved in some tight, tense matches where the final result was far from uncertain. These days Murray seems to be putting himself - and his supporters - through the mill every time he steps onto the court. Just like Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid– “we're Atletico, if we do not suffer, we are not ourselves” – it’s almost becoming a necessity for Murray to suffer to win. Or even to not win, as was the case in his shock first-round defeat to Dominik Koepfer at the Paris Masters on Monday.
Murray has shown signs over the last few months that he is getting closer to where he wants to be, with wins over Ugo Humbert, Carlos Alcaraz, Frances Tiafoe and Hubert Hurkacz offering hope that the three-time Grand Slam champion can compete with the best on tour again. But the hope has been somewhat tempered by the way that Murray is winning.
Look back at Murray’s victories since the start of the summer and almost all of them have gone the distance. His two wins at Wimbledon were both over three-and-a-half hours long; the “brutal” Indian Wells victory over Alcaraz went over three hours; the three-hour, 45-minute win over Frances Tiafoe in Antwerp was the longest three-set match of 2021; the Vienna win over Hurkacz came over two hours and 40 minutes.
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There have been some straight-set wins dotted around, but they almost seem the exception these days for Murray.
Part of the problem for Murray is his ranking, which has plummeted to 144, and the tough draws he has been getting. It’s perhaps not surprising that he is being pushed to the limit so often when he is often having to face top-20 players in the first two rounds of tournaments.
But the frustration is that there have often been opportunities for Murray to wrap things up sooner, sparing himself the physical challenge of having to slog it out for another hour or two. That was certainly the case against Koepfer, when Murray blew seven match points, and against Hurkacz in Vienna, when Murray was pushed to three sets, and in the five-set battle against Stefanos Tsitsipas at the US Open, when Murray looked on track to beat the world No 3 before losing in nearly five hours.
Murray can’t enjoy the suffering, especially given the physical challenges he has faced over the last few years, but he’s finding it hard to win any other way. And while he has delighted crowds with his dramatic matches, non-stop running and fine hitting, the fact that his last three victories have all been followed by straight-set defeats suggests that perhaps there is a price to be paid for such exertions.
There is no easy solution of course, aside from being more clinical at the key moments, which Murray acknowledged last week is an area he still needs to work on.
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He could also get some more help from his first serve, which has not been consistent enough over the last few months.
In six of Murray’s last seven wins his serve rating – a statistic calculated by the ATP to value a player’s serve over the course of a match – has been 275 or above. In four of his last five defeats his serve rating has been below 245. The problem is not that the first serve is not good enough, but that it is not landing enough.
Murray won 78 per cent of first-serve points against Koepfer but only made 49 per cent of his first serves. In his previous defeat to Alcaraz his first-serve percentage was down at 51, and in his loss to Diego Schwartzman before that it was down at 48 per cent.
“It felt like at times I was missing a ton of first serves in a row,” said Murray after the defeat to Koepfer. “Didn’t hit my second serve well either, which the last couple of weeks has been better. So there were a number of things that I didn’t do well enough tonight, and the reasons for that, I’m not sure.”
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The last few months raise questions about what’s ahead for Murray. Would he have hoped to be further along the comeback trail by now? There have been encouraging signs in his wins over top-class players, but with his ranking position still below 100 the difficult draws are going to keep coming. If he is going to play the Australian Open it looks likely that he will need a wildcard or will need to go through qualifying.
The biggest encouragement is the amount of tennis that Murray has managed to play in the second half of the year. It has been far and away his busiest schedule for some time and his body seems to have held up well to the demands placed on it, even though he is now thinking about a short break after finishing his 2021 season at next week’s Stockholm Open. Murray will take some time off before playing in the Battle of the Brits next month and then potentially an Abu Dhabi exhibition event along with Rafael Nadal and Emma Raducanu in December.
"I don't know 100 percent if Abu Dhabi is happening or not, but certainly if I wasn't going to go there I would definitely go away and practice for a little bit outdoors in the sun,” he said after losing in Paris.
“But even if I was to play in Abu Dhabi I may potentially do that a little bit, as well. I have had played a lot of tennis recently, so, you know, maybe first few weeks, you know, it would be nice to just be at home and rest and let the body recover a little bit and the mind, as well."
It would be fascinating to know where exactly Murray thinks his game is at right now. Clearly he is better than his current ranking, but how much better? And how will he start to climb up the rankings as the 2022 season approaches?
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