Monday, 7 November 2016

So how did Andy Murray finally reach No. 1? The Grønmark Blog spills the beans...

At the start of 2016, I wrote of Andy Murray (or "Glumboy" as I referred to him at the time): "I ask nothing more of him - the Olympics, Wimbledon and the Davis Cup: that'll do." So what does he do? Wins a second Wimbledon title, another Olympic gold medal - and, in the most unlikely of his 2016 achievements, reaches No. 1 in the Men's World Rankings for the first time in his extraordinary career. At the start of June, Novak Djokovic was 8,000 points ahead of Murray. Even after Murray won Wimbledon, he was still nearly 5,000 points behind (Murray had 10,195; Djokovic 15,040). So how the hell has he managed to overhaul the seemingly invincible Serbinator? Here's how:

The tennis rankings system is a bit odd: players "defend" points from the same tournament a year before, so if they do badly at an event where they did well the previous year, their ratings suffer more than one might normally expect. Djokovic had a sensational second half to 2015. In comparison, the second half of the 2016 season has been a disaster for him. Having finally won the French Open in May - thereby achieving a career grand slam - the motivation seems to have drained out of him. He lost early at Wimbledon and (tearfully) at the Olympics, staged a few on-court temper tantrums, picked up a niggling injury, and took time off from the tour to get his head sorted. While this was all happening, Murray (having reached the final of the Australian and the French) triumphed at Queen's, Wimbledon and the Olympics, before going on to win four of his next six tour events, and reach the final of another. That's the kind of stint you have to put in to reach No. 1 these days - and Djokovic could reclaim the top spot by winning the tour finals in London next week, something he's managed to do four times on the trot (it's traditionally Murray's worst event of the year).

Murray has undoubtedly been helped by injuries to Federer (who has barely played this season) and Nadal, who has shut up shop early for the year (but whose form was lousy anyway). Some might claim that all this somehow invalidates Murray's tremendous achievement. Nonsense. The surly Scot took the best part of two years to fully recover from vital back surgery after winning Wimbledon in 2013, which helped Djokovic - as did both Federer's decline from the sublime career heights of the Noughties, and Nadal's rather mysterious ups and downs in terms of form and injuries. Federer's rise to glory began when his main opponents were Leyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick - both world-class players, but unlikely to feature in any arguments about who was the greatest of all time. As for Nadal, his ascendancy was made possible by the deliberate slowing-down of the playing surface at all major events - I'd love to have seen him perform on a lightning-fast '70s grass or hard court while wielding a wooden Dunlop Maxply Fort racket, rather than playing with a super-hi-tech graphite magic wand on the relatively docile court surfaces that suit his clay-court style.

You can only beat the bloke cross the net from you - and if that bloke happens to be a great player who is getting on a bit, or is suffering from an injury, or is going a bit mental  - that's nothing to do with you: you've still got to beat them. It's Murray's bad luck to have been playing in an era where he's had to compete against three of the sports' all-time outstanding champions.

Without the return of the great Easter island statue - Ivan Lendl - none of this would have been possible. What he seems to bring to Murray's game is concentration, power and brutality - i.e. no mental walkabouts, no mucking about showing how naturally gifted you are, and no fannying around just getting the ball back in play and waiting for your opponent to make a mistake. Even though Lendl was absent from Paris last week, his influence was constantly in evidence, most markedly when Murray spent the whole of the deciding set against John Isner bouncing around annoyingly between points: when Isner blatted down yet another unplayable ace, the Grinch simply moved across to receive the next serve, still bouncing to show just how incredibly full of beans he was - worked a treat, too.

Of course, there are the basics to consider: Murray's first serve is quicker and more thuggish - and more dependable - than it used to be; his second serve is unrecognisable compared to waffy, ploppy liitle powder-puff he used to send down; his forehand has gone full Mike Tyson; his two-fisted down-the-line backhand is as grooved as a Bernard Edwards bassline; and his ability to figure out how to defeat a troublesome opponent playing the best tennis they've ever produced has almost turned into a superpower - Murray has the best pure tennis brain of any player on the circuit, as well as natural skills only bettered by Federer, and Lendl has evidently taught him to make the right shot choice more often than not. On top of all that, Murray gives the impression of never being beaten (even when he was down 6-1 in a tie-breaker against Berdych last week, you suspected he was somehow going to turn it around - he won it 11-9). It's that aura of invincibility that all the great champions have in their pomp. Murray's ability to claw his way out of trouble has always been impressive - he's genuinely courageous - but in the past few months, his eventual victory in any contest has begun to seem inevitable: his handful of losses have been shocking, unnatural.

My appreciation of Murray as a tennis-player has little to do with him being a Brit (although the fact that five of his six major tournament triumphs have been at Wimbledon, the Olympics and the Davis Cup would seem to suggest that representing his country brings out the very best in him). Neither does my delight in his success have anything to do with his wonderful personality. Obviously. (Although, to be fair, he's evidently neither a shit nor a cheat: in fact, he's quite evidently that indefinable thing, a "good bloke" - albeit one with anger-management issues and a potty-mouth.) No, what I admire about Murray, why I genuinely care whether he wins or loses, is that he's one of only two undoubted tennis geniuses currently playing the game (no prizes for guessing the identity of the other one). And it's an absolute delight to see a tennis genius mining their talent for all it's worth (unless, of course, they happened to be Ilie Nastase or John McEnroe).

Perhaps the British government might consider an honorary knighthood for Ivan Lendl in recognition of his role in making all this possible - at the same time as giving a real one to Andy Murray for quite possibly being the greatest British sportsman of all time.


  1. First Niall Ferguson. Then Andy Murray. Why is this blog being kind to Scottish people all of a sudden?

    After his knighthood Andy Murray should be awarded the ultimate accolade - a place on the panel of Sue "Saccharine" Barker's "A Question of Sport" where he could chum up with lovable cockney geezer Phil Tufnell. Well, it's a bit more dignified than Andrew Flintoff and his slot with James Corden on Sky.

    1. I hate to break it to you, but Andy Murray has already appeared on "A League of Their Own", Sky's rib-tickling rip-off of "A Question of Sport". The programme is hosted by rib-tickling comic actor, James Corden, and Andrew Flintoff is (I believe) their answer to the rib-tickling Tuffers. The die is already cast.