Andy Murray – Zen and the art of racquet maintenance

In Tuesday night’s quarter final Nick Kyrgios broke another racquet. Not the first and unlikely to be the last in his career. Whether it be a sign of youthful exuberance (he is still a teenager after all) or some deeper level of bratitude only time will tell. We seem willing to cut this kid some slack from our usual harsh assessment of Australian players’ character. Possibly because he appears to be the real deal.

As a player Kyrgios has some real weapons, limited technical flaws and does not choke in the big moments. Contrast this with the arrival of Lleyton Hewitt almost 20 years ago; he never had so easy a ride. A similar youthful fire, but built off a platform of cap backwards American “c’mon”s and Wilanderesque hand gestures. He was altogether too foreign and unlikable when we had Pat Rafter.

Pat on the back

Our Pat who was the perennial pleasant chap (I met him a few times working at the Australian Men’s Hardcourts in Adelaide – he really is that polite) who would even win the “nice guy” category at the ATP awards each year. He was a major winner and was a contender everywhere except Roland Garros (which is why Richard Fromberg was invented).

So it’s not surprising we loved Pat and placed Lleyton somewhere on a scale of tolerance to contempt (it didn’t help that, post break-up, Belgium turned down our offer to trade him for Kim Clijsters). We even made Pat “Australian of the Year” despite him being a resident of Bermuda at the time – legally avoiding paying tax in the country that saw fit to bestow him with its highest honour (outside winner of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, anyway).

Lleyton, the world’s most prolific Davis Cup player, has always loved Australia in a way that it never saw fit to love him back.

The mind/body split

But even with his racquet abuse, crowd engagement, interesting haircut and no BS attitude at press conferences, Kyrgios was not the most compelling player on the court in the quarter final for mine. Andy Murray is the full package.

As a kid learning the craft of tennis I would often hear the statement that tennis is 90% mental and 10% physical. While I understood the concept, that saying never rang true for me. I could look at the matches around me and mostly the outcome could be easily explained through fitness or technique. Occasionally a wily older player would talk a fitter, more proficient player out of a match but this was the exception.

The one rider I would attach is the way the elder statesman used to work over younger players on the court. As a Division 1/2 level player in Adelaide in his 40s, dad would always be well turned out in his white tennis gear (one of his favourite saying is ‘if you can’t play like a professional, at least look like one’), a terry towelling hat, some grey facial hair and a bald head. Add to that a classical Australian playing style – Newk like serve and volley action, slice backhand and flat forehand.

To the young tyros on the tennis courts of the Woodville Association in the late 80s / early 90s he seemed straight out of the Pleistocene. Many a time I saw a young player’s technical failings enhanced and then overwhelmed by the indignity of getting their backsides handed to them by ‘that old bloke’.

Big 4 – more than just caravan parks

But for me, even at the professional level, I think most of the results are explicable through issues of technique and physicality. That is until you get to the Big 4 of men’s tennis: Federer; Nadal; Djokovic; and Murray. They are technically and physically pretty much on a par, so it is only the mental that will separate them on any given day. Federer, probably the most naturally gifted player of the modern age, has seen his Greatest of All Time claims lessened by wilting in the big moments before the unwavering resolve of Nadal and Djokovic.

Back to Murray – injuries aside, he is currently technically and physically the strongest of the four. Mentally he can be all over the shop. As a result, a meeting between Murray and any of the other Big 4 is fascinating viewing. He has played a combined seven major finals against Djokovic and Federer, winning two. Add to that a five set loss to each of them in the semi final of the Australian Open. He has never played a major final against Nadal but has played him 9 times in majors, 8 of those a quarter or a semi – Nadal leads 7-2.

So over his major career Murray has played the other three at least 18 times and won only four. Reasonable evidence of their mental hold over him and why he is a joy to watch. Each match you know you’ll get a mental brick wall from Djokovic or Nadal and Federer will majestically cruise the court. At the other end you have a gimping, shouting at his mum, injury prone whirligig. Each moment on court is filled with possibility and unpredictability – surely what we should be looking for once the Australians are back in their natural habitat of the commentary box.

A Scot knows what to do with a Czech

Although it was against Berdych, Thursday night’s semi had Murray getting out his full bag of tricks. Death stares, calf twinges, arguments with the umpire, shouting and rambling. Add to that a fiancé with a sailor’s vocabulary – who would want to watch anybody else? That said, Murray played Berdych. With all of the antipathy between the coaching boxes leading to on court daggers and under the breathe comments, Murray was able to put Berdych off his game while focussing his own energy in his favoured ‘it’s me against the world’ style.

Perhaps he is developing, like Djokovic the tennis Jedi, the ability to better use his own mental energy to control the rhythm of the game – we saw Novak do that perfectly in his semi against Wawrinka. As long as we regularly get the full Murray show, as we should tonight, I will keep watching tennis. As the only meeting of the Big 4 at this Australian Open, let’s hope tonight is a cracker.

About Dave Brown

Upholding the honour of the colony. "Play up Norwoods!"


  1. Good one Dave. I love ‘bratitude’ – is it copyrighted?
    I reckon Leyton got a hard time for the same reason as Andy – the handwringing, anxiety-ridden uber Mother in the stands. No red-blooded male can stand that, so it was an automatic turn off for fans.
    I always admired rather than loved him. A frill necked lizard who had to blow himself up larger than life, to scare off more powerful opponents.
    As for tonight – I reckon your summary of the Big 4 was spot on a year ago. Looks like the Big 2 to me now. Roger betrayed by age and lacking the killer shark mentality of younger days. Rafa as good as ever, but with a body as battered and unreliable as Beau Waters.
    Murray’s record over the last 2 years is as good as anyone. I reckon he’s just a late maturer.
    Tonight is the end of summer. Ditch the dumb arse 50 over World Cup, and bring on the NAB Cup.

  2. Gregor Lewis says

    Rollicking read Dave.
    The ‘Our Pat’ will do thank you Lleyton analogy of Hewitt’s polarising emergence resonates strongly with me.
    Lovd the Fromberg line, but interestingly, Pat’s achievements at the French … on clay overall, eclipsed the Taswegian Curly Enigma, quite comfortably.
    Really enjoyed Murray’s win over Berdych because while his emotions were delightfully aerosoled with bursts spraying indiscriminantly for all to see, hear, smell and enjoy, och Andy bit down hard on this match and lockjawed onto Berdych’s will and self-belief … until he shook the life out of them. GRRRRRR!

    Pity he allowed Djokovic to con him out of it in the Final, but as you say, Nole is the game’s reigning jedi master at mo. He KNOWS where all the droids are.

  3. Bratitude is free to whoever wants to use it, Peter. With Lleyton I felt that people didn’t understand what he was up against every single game – blokes bigger, stronger and more powerful than him. All he had was foot speed and fire that needed stoking (I’m using the past tense because his career as a serious player is long gone). I’m not ready to write Rafa off just yet but it is starting to look like Roger’s losing interest a bit in the majors.

    Thanks Gregor. Yes, I tend to forget that Rafter made the semis at Roland Garros and Fromberg never got past the 3rd round. That said he won three titles on clay so he always seemed our best chance.

  4. Matthew Brown says

    Wouldn’t disagree that Murray is the most compelling of the Fab Four but would take issue with the claim that he is currently technically the strongest of the four. Indeed, part of the compelling nature of Murray is how he has managed to overcome some of his technical deficiencies to be so good.

    While his round the outside, scoopy forehand seems to have improved recently, not so much with the serve. The ball toss still goes out in front and to the right on occasion meaning he hits the serve long. And the second serve… some of the speeds he gets down to on the second ball… Let’s just say that it wouldn’t be out of place for Murray to be wearing the Scottish national kit when he hits some of those second serves!

  5. Dave Brown says

    Will bow to your judgement, Matt, given you are the only person in this thread to have beaten Hewitt. You are absolutely right about his second serve, was a real liability in the final – perhaps a truer statement on my part should have been that he is the most powerful. Before the mental collapse on Sunday night he was really starting to overpower Djokovic, particularly on any crosscourt exchanges, either wing.

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