In the "sweet science" of boxing, promoters talk about how "styles make the fight." Thus, they try not to match up two fighters who prefer to box defensively or conservatively, as it will make for a boring fight.
Style can also refer to fashion sense, musical taste, penmanship, or just about anything else.
Today’s article will talk about Andy Murray, the Scottish tennis wunderkind, and what we can expect to see him accomplish on the ATP Tour. We will look at him through the eyes of two of the best tennis experts Bleacher Report has to offer.
This is where the “styles” come in.
Tennis makes for a perfect metaphor to illustrate the contrasting attributes these two tennis aficionados exhibit.
On one baseline, we have Joan A. Allen, who is an elegant, seemingly effortless writer. She brings a positively poetic approach to her columns. She sees the world in a graceful progression, thoughtfully extrapolating what might come next only after careful examination of what preceded.
She is to sports reporting as Roger Federer is to tennis: never rushed, rarely rattled, smooth to the point of seeming apathy, though in fact she cares with a passion that is almost palpable beneath the surface of everything she pens.
Peering back at her from the other baseline, we have Robert J. York, a student of tennis to an insane degree. Rob has a singular ability to tear apart a subject to its minutiae, sorting through the chaff to find the essence of the matter, and drawing clear, simple conclusions that would elude the majority of analysts.
He is the equivalent of Andre Agassi, a grinder who squeezes out maximum return on minimal investment; a devastating counter-puncher whose clarity of thought could enable him to spar with anyone and embarrass the soul who took him lightly.
For the rest of this article, we will refer to the interviewees by their assumed names, and ask them to dissect the rising phenomenon of Andrew Murray.
Moderator: Andy Murray is 21—will be 22 in May—and has never won a major. Is 2009 the year for a breakthrough? If not 2009, when? If he wins one, how many do you see him ending his career with?
Roger Federer: You cannot assume anything in the world of sports. As we speculate about the ongoing and future career of Andy Murray, there are many unknowns, many factors that may affect the success of this seemingly unstoppable force in men’s tennis.
That said, in 2009, barring illness or injury, Andy Murray will win his first major. It is safe to assume that will not happen during the French Open at Roland Garros. There is the chance that Andy might surprise us in 2009—but in the end, I suspect that he will not surprise Rafael Nadal.
His first true opportunity to capture a slam championship will unfold at Wimbledon, where the English contingent will insist he win. This extra burden of expectation will wilt Murray’s chances of taking his first major at the all-England Club in 2009.
New York is where Murray will shine. He loves the hard courts, the night life and the bright lights that compelled Pete Hamill to describe New York as the city of right angles and tough, damaged people. In this mélange Murray emerges as the U.S. Open champion with his ability to carve up the opposition with scalpel-honed competence.
Once he wins that first grand slam trophy, he will collect many more, ultimately equaling Bjorn Borg’s 11-5 record in slam finals. Because he will inherit very stiff competition—Murray will not exceed 11 championships.
Andre Agassi: I agree that the U.S. Open is Murray’s best chance for a major this year. He hasn’t demonstrated much love for clay, and only a little more for grass, but on hard he’s been as tough as they come this year.
To some degree, though, his chances at a major aren’t just about him: they’re also about how Federer and Nadal perform there, because they’re the most talented players on tour and they are, unlike him, proven slam winners.
He is gaining ground on those two, though, so I’d be shocked if he doesn’t have at least one by the end of 2010. I’m not prepared to say he will win one in 2009, although it would not shock me.
Winning a major requires so much, mentally and physically, that it’s hard to break through and win your first when players with a proven track record occupy the perch above you. Murray will have a struggle to contend with the three men ahead of him.
Let’s say Murray doesn’t get terribly injured or ill in the near future, or that someone like Richard Gasquet doesn’t put the pieces together and turn into a world beater. If neither happens, I think Murray’s on pace to win four or five majors.
Mod: It is rare to read about Murray without mention being made of his tactics and “court I.Q.” Why? What sets him apart as a tactician?
Fed: Murray is intelligent and well-versed in tennis tactics—able to change his game plan if need be in the midst of the action. He can do that because he has confidence in himself and his own ability to figure out the opposition.
As the best counter-puncher on tour today, Murray transitions from defense to offense with extraordinary speed, stepping into the court and cutting off balls and sending them back with a deft flick of his wrists cross court past the outstretched reach of his opponent.
Such tactics are so rudimentary, yet sadly lacking in today’s era of power tennis. He has perfected the seemingly lost art of using an opponent’s pace and power against him.
AA: I agree with Fed...to a certain extent.
From a fan’s perspective, most of today’s tennis looks like one-dimensional slugging from the baseline. Most of us either can’t or don’t see the tactical know-how being displayed on court, or the shots being planned three-four strokes in advance.
Murray’s on-court IQ is so high that we actually can see it, thanks to his angles, his drop shots, and his the ability to win without pace.
I recently re-watched highlights of his match with Gasquet at last year’s Wimbledon, and with all the slices and feathery volleys I often thought I was watching a match 25 years old.
Mod: Murray’s world ranking seems to have stalled in the lower half of the top-five. Does he have what it takes to pass Roger Federer and become world No. 2? What about passing Rafael Nadal to become No. 1?
Who has the better chance of being No. 1—Murray or Djokovic?
AA: I don’t consider him stalled at all. The gulf separating Federer, Nadal and Djokovic from the rest of the tour was gaping, and it’s taken Murray a really long time to break it down.
He’s about to, though, as he’s on the verge of taking No. 3 and isn’t all that far from overtaking Federer at No. 2. If Federer doesn’t raise his game and retake the U.S. Open or Wimbledon, Murray’s chances of finishing the year No. 2 are good.
Long term, Djokovic shows more aptitude for clay, but both men will do the greatest amount of damage on the hard courts. And on asphalt, Murray is unquestionably playing better now, and his game appears to have more gears than the Serb’s. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Murray will perpetually overshadow Djokovic, but I expect him to have a more decorated career in the end.
Fed: Murray, world No. 4, has climbed to within 170 points of Novak Djokovic, world No. 3. He is within a whisper of overtaking Djokovic during the next tournament in Monte Carlo. Additionally, Djokovic has many more points to defend during the clay season than Murray.
When he won the 2008 Australian Open, Djokovic seemed confident and his focus was solid. But now he seems to falter, to be unsure. At times he loses his focus and then his will to continue to fight. He has no consistency. These are not traits of a player aspiring to be No. 1.
At this point in his career, Murray is moving steadily ahead while Djokovic seems to be inching back. Murray will take over number 3, and then edge toward Federer and Nadal, although there are 5,630 points between Murray and the top-ranked player.
It is hard to imagine Murray making up this much ground in a year. But eventually, Andy will succeed Nadal as the next new number one ranked player—not in 2009 but 2010.
AA: Rather an emphatic position for one who couched this discussion with platitudes about “unknowns.”
Mod: Okay, okay, play nice. So tell us this: What is Murray’s greatest improvement over the last calendar year? What does he most need to shore up in order to continue rising up the world rankings?
Fed: Murray’s biggest improvements have been in: 1) his ability to remain cool & calm under pressure; and 2) his fitness.
In the past Murray’s sour attitude affected his play and interfered with his ability to win. Anger was a distraction and a distiller of aggression. He has mastered that tendency to his great credit, no longer giving into anger, frustration and defeat.
Murray is much fitter now, and he can endure protracted matches. His ability to remain fresh and focused has improved his chances to win.
When Murray “goes away” during a match you can find him camped out “miles” behind the baseline. He needs to keep moving forward, being aggressive to impose his game on the opposition. When he does that, Murray exerts untold pressure on the man on the other side of the net.
AA: It’s hard to argue that Murray’s greatest improvements haven’t been physical. He nearly upset Nadal at the 2007 AO and failed because his body gave out in the end. Since last year, he’s been as strong and fit as anyone.
His greatest weakness now is the same as his greatest strength: His head. He had a reputation before of trying too hard to be creative, of going for nifty drop shots at times when they really weren’t called for. His only really bad loss of this year was against Nadal in the windy Indian Wells final.
In that match Nadal improvised while Murray flailed. After that, Nadal said that he won because he’d “accepted” the conditions and Murray had not.
One of the biggest problems a detailed planner can have is what to do when the blueprint won’t work. The next step for Murray will be to fight through days when things aren’t going his way; that’s a quality all the greats have displayed.
Mod: Okay, this one is for fun. What all-time tennis great does Murray most remind you of?
Fed: With his meticulous touch shots and his smooth movements on court, Andy Murray reminds me of Miloslav Mecir—a.k.a. the Cat, who drove Swedish players Edberg and Wilander and the vaunted Czech Lendl to distraction. Mecir just kept coming. It was a game of cat and mouse. The mice squealed as the Cat licked his chops.
AA: The closest I can think of is Martina Hingis. Both players were able to take apart more athletic, harder-hitting players with their strategies and their touch. Murray has taken longer to put his game together than Hingis did, but that’s ultimately to his advantage: He probably won’t be phased out the way she was after a stay at the top.
Plus, at 6’3” and with a pretty big serve, he’s going to be a lot harder to overpower than she was.
In the end, whether or not you agree that Murray will win Slams and/or reach number one in the world, it is hard to argue with the well-crafted arguments by Allen/Federer and York/Agassi.
And it is virtually impossible to ignore that Andy Murray is one of the brightest young stars on the ATP Tour.
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