Andy Murray had been having a wonderful Wimbledon. He’d swatted away all his opponents including the very talented Richard Gasquet. He was playing great tennis and seemed full of confidence. And this was on the back of an impressive run of form including his best clay court season – in which he reached the semi-finals of the French – and winning the pre-Wimbledon Queen’s title for the second time. That victory included a virtuoso display against Roddick which was arguably the best performance by anyone this year.
Andy Murray – three times a grand slam finalist and with 6 Masters titles – is the greatest British tennis player in living memory. Far more talented than the last British tennis hero, Tim Henman, there seemed every prospect that Andy – in his third consecutive Wimbledon semi-final – could become the first British man to reach the final since Bunny Austin in 1938. And if he did that, all his fans were optimistic that he would hold aloft the Wimbledon trophy and record the first British win since Fred Perry 75 years ago in 1936.
Of course, Andy – the world number 4 – had a formidable opponent in Rafael Nadal, world number 1 and Wimbledon champion. But Rafa had been less than impressive in defeating Mardy Fish in the quarter finals. As the players warmed up, the three times Wimbledon champion Boris Becker predicted a Murray win.
And for more than an hour Andy gave us every reason to be optimistic. In his first game he thundered down two aces and continued to serve well throughout the first set. Nadal was playing well, too, but serving at 5-6 he found himself 0-40 down. Three set points for Andy. In their closely fought semi at the French Open, Nadal saved most of the 18 break points he faced. And he saved the first one here, too. But not the second. Andy had taken the first set 7-5. The perfect start!
And the excellence continued into the second set. Games went with serve at first. Andy took a 2-1 lead. Then Nadal found himself 15-30 down. A quick rally and Andy had an easy forehand to make it 15-40 and give himself two break points. Had he broken Nadal’s serve here, there was every chance he would have taken the set. And in the last 6 years Andy has never surrendered a two set lead.
But Andy missed the easy forehand. Not by much – perhaps an inch or two. But he’d missed a great chance. But never mind, the score was still 30-30. Concentrate, Andy, and you can still break his serve.
But it was clear that Andy was still thinking about that miss as he made another two errors to lose the game. 2-2.
So, OK, the game’s gone. But you’re playing well, Andy. Everyone has the occasional bad miss. Put it out of your head, and you can still win.
But Andy couldn’t. His form nosedived and he lost seven games in a row. So from a one set lead, and a 2-1 30-15 lead in the second, Andy found himself losing 7-5, 2-6, 0-2. And Nadal got another break in the third set to take it 6-2. Andy’s first serve percentage – an impressive 66% in the first set – was a poor 48% in the third.
As I tweeted: “Murray, playing brilliantly, misses easy shot which wd have given 2 break points.Can’t put it out of head & Nadal’s now taken 7 games in a row”.
Andy is renowned for his fightbacks, but not this time. He lost his first service game 0-40, and Nadal was quickly 2-0 ahead in set 4. It was only at that point – when the match was in effect lost – that Andy managed some resistance. The rest of the set was hard fought, but Nadal won in 4 sets.
Tennis is a game which is won in the mind. No matter how brilliant a player you are, you need mental toughness to achieve grand slam success. It pains me to say this but this is not the first time Andy has shown mental fragility in important matches. For example, on three occasions he has reached grand slam finals (once at the US; twice at the Australian). On each occasion he has played well below par, failing to win one of the 9 sets he’s played in these finals.
In these matches it seemed that nerves got the better of him. In Friday’s match the meltdown was different in that he started so well, but then dwelt on one bad miss to such an extent that it totally undermined him.
Does Andy realise there’s a problem? Not judging from his comments after the match. He said at one point that he’d just have to work harder to get better. But from all accounts no-one works harder than Andy. He is incredibly fit, fast and athletic.
But an even more worrying comment was that he felt Nadal was 10-15% better than him. I think this provides the key to Andy’s loss. Tennis is all about belief. If you don’t believe you are as good – or better – than your opponent, then it is very difficult to win.
Andy has appeared to be much more confident recently. I think he started this match believing he could win. So, although he must have been nervous, that did not undermine his game at first. Nadal is a great player, but Andy was a better one for the first hour or so. Then came that forehand miss. Why couldn’t Andy put it out of his head? Possibly because it undermined his belief that he had the game to beat Nadal. It sparked off his doubts, his feeling that Nadal was in reality 10 or 15% better. And then he was sunk.
I’m sure Andy will reflect on this match and discuss it with ‘Team Murray’. If he realises that it’s all in the mind, and can get help to make himself mentally as tough as Nadal, then this brilliant player can go on to win the grand slams that his huge talent merits.
If not, he is unlikely to win Wimbledon or any other major.