Is Andy Murray's Problem Mental or Physical?

Glenn VallachContributor IIIDecember 29, 2011

Andy Murray has yet to win a major or the WTF.
Andy Murray has yet to win a major or the WTF.Julian Finney/Getty Images

Andy Murray's psyche is one of the most oft-discussed topics in tennis—every pundit, blogger, and fan wants an easy answer to the complex question, "Why can't this guy win a major?"  

Cue the narrative that Murray just doesn't have it upstairs, that he's been choking away slams all this time. He's too weak mentally—He crumbles when it counts—He needs to improve his on-court demeanor.

It's easy to see where the theory comes from.  

Murray's been a world-beater in three-setters and a bridesmaid at the slams. He has won eight Masters 1000 tournaments in nine finals appearances, several against Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, but is 0-for-3 in slam finals.  

He's 8-6 against Federer overall, yet 0-2 in majors. He'd beaten Novak Djokovic three times in a row heading into the 2011 Australian Open, but got trounced in the final.

It was only natural for people to begin citing an inability to handle pressure to explain these uneven results.   

And it's not a totally unreasonable premise. No one's calling Murray Mr. Clutch. He' has gone set-less in major finals, missed easy shots in big spots, and visibly lost his cool at awful times. He needs to get tougher.

But make no mistake about it, Andy Murray is still slam-less because his tennis has not been good enough physically.

The problem with Murray's game is that he lacks a killer put-away shot.

His serve, a safety net for so many legends, is not top-rate. In 2011, he ranked 23rd in percentage of service games won (Federer was second, Djokovic seventh and Rafael Nadal 15th), and 19th in percentage of first-service points won (Federer was second, Djokovic 21st and Nadal 29th).

Murray also was 38th in first-service percentage (Nadal was sixth, Djokovic 10th and Federer 13th) and a disappointing 44th in the all-important percentage of second-service points won statistic (Federer was first, Nadal second and Djokovic fourth).

If Murray wants to win a major, he'll have to improve these marks. Nowhere is the ability to earn easy points more important than at slams.  

How many times have we seen Federer dig himself out of trouble with huge first serves?

Nor is Murray's forehand devastating.  Too often does he lob forehands without creating any advantage for himself in the point.  Even when he does wind up for a rip, the result is in many cases vanilla, not hard or well-placed enough to seal the point.

Put it this way, no opponent cringes when he sends a neutral rally shot to Murray's forehand side.  It's tough to win a major that way.

While Murray's backhand is the closest thing he has to an elite shot, you wouldn't call it a point-ender.  It's more of a rally stroke—solid, consistent, well-placed.  And if he finds the right angle and pace, he'll hit winners with it.  But its just not an overwhelming weapon at this point. 

Of course, this isn't to say Murray lacks talent.

 He's quick, consistent, crafty and obviously one of the best players in the world.  But he needs a shot to lean on in big slam matches, a shot that makes commentators say over and over again, "theres nothing Opponent X could have done."

Because at the business end of majors, Opponent X is going to be Djokovic, Nadal or Federer.  All-time greats aren't going to donate big slam matches, you have to take matters off of their racquet.  Murray can't do that right now.

The Big Three, on the other hand, have elite offense.  

Federer's serve is lethal, nicking lines at 120-130 mph, and his forehand dominant.

The anchor of Nadal's game is a brutally heavy forehand.  It may not be the winner-producer that Federer's is, but its just as ruthless.  All it takes is one mistake towards Rafa's forehand and the point is effectively over.  It may take a couple shots, but Rafa's attack forehand almost always tilts the scales for good.

Djokovic's two-handed backhand has become the most effective weapon in tennis.  He pummels it cross-court until he has an angle to either carve it cross-court even more sharply for a winner (as he did this year against Nadal time and again). or straighten it out up the line to the open court he's been busy creating.  

Again, its not Federer's instant offense, but its controlled, gradual, reliable and suffocating. Once Djokovic gets you on a string, the point is over.  His forehand has become pretty damaging, too.

Murray doesn't have one of these trump cards.  In many respects, he's at the mercy of his opponent's form.  That's not a good place to be against Rafa, Roger or Novak in majors.

And it goes a long way in explaining Andy's second major flaw, his passivity.

Murray drives his fans crazy by letting his opponents back into points after seemingly holding an upper hand.  He appears content to push groundies back and forth, to play junk ball from the baseline.

He's almost Wozniacki-like at times, a shortcoming many have attributed to a lack of mental toughness.  But, again, Murray's problem is more physical than psychological.  He just doesn't have the artillery to go for the jugular time and again.  

If he could consistently smash aces and drill on-the-line winners, he would.  He's not there yet.

This all, of course, raises the question: if Murray doesn't have the game to win slams, how is he able to win Master 1000s against the same field?  

Well, the answer is the same for Caroline Wozniacki: it's harder to win majors.  The best players are more focused and in-form at slams.  You may be able to bait Novak Djokovic into a sloppy loss in Cincinnati, but Nole won't be so charitable in Melbourne.

Like Wozniacki, Murray has an incredible canvas of defense, athleticism and variety to work with.  If he can add a kill shot to his repertoire, no mental weakness, whether real or perceived, will be able to stop him.   


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