Andy Murray won the first ATP clay-court title of his career a few days ago in Munich. Just why it took Murray so long to sharpen up his game on clay is an interesting issue that’s difficult to resolve, but the very question supports the idea that the 27-year-old, recently married Scot is a complex man with a complicated tennis game.
That’s quite a combination.
This calls for a little backstory: Murray left Scotland for Barcelona, Spain, at age 15. He subsequently trained on the red clay courts at the Sanchez-Casal Academy, often under the watchful eye of a versatile all-around master of dirt ball, Emilio Sanchez.
The game Murray developed is long on defense, and on the kind of athleticism and retrieving skill that comes in handy on slower surfaces. Murray’s game is like jazz; it’s improvisational. It’s flush with the kind of creativity that is permitted on a clay court. That game can bring a crowd to its feet.
Murray has shown time and again that he isn’t at all shy about throwing in a drop shot when it’s least expected, or finding an acute, unexpected angle with a passing shot. In other words, Murray’s game has all the earmarks of clay-court expertise, right down to his self-injurious reluctance to approach the net.
Yet that game has always worked better—much better—on hard courts. Until Munich, Murray hadn’t even been to a clay-court final.
And then there’s this: Between the beginning of 2012 and March 2014, the period during which Murray has enjoyed his greatest success, he was coached by one of the superb clay-courters of the Open era, Ivan Lendl. Murray never made it past the quarterfinals at a clay event under Lendl’s tutelage, yet mere weeks after they parted company, Murray slashed his way to the French Open semifinals, where he managed to fade, consistently and woefully, to eventual champ Rafael Nadal, 6-3, 6-2, 6-1.
That Murray frittered away a two-sets-to-love lead against Gael Monfils in the previous round and was forced to go the five leg-wearying sets before prevailing over the Frenchman may have had something to do with that. But no matter how you cut it, Murray was beaten by Nadal as if he were a journeyman.
By that time, Murray was already pondering an unexpected and, to some, radical move—hiring former WTA No. 1 and two-time Grand Slam champion Amelie Mauresmo as his new coach. It was heralded as a “historic decision,” in that Mauresmo thereby became the first woman to become the traveling coach of a top male pro. Though other women have had powerful, shaping influences on the games of many great men, including Lendl himself (by his mother) and Novak Djokovic (by coach Jelena Gencic), this was an unprecedented union.
Murray won three titles with Mauresmo at his side in 2014 (none greater than an ATP 500), but the cost of his new arrangement with someone who was essentially a part-timer was high. He allegedly had not consulted on the Mauresmo hire with neither his long-time friend, hitting partner, and unofficial coach of five years, Dani Vallverdu, nor his physical trainer Jez Green, who had been with Murray for seven years. The two men reportedly grew increasingly disillusioned as Murray’s year went on.
Mauresmo’s relatively low-key coaching style and her unwillingness to fling heart and soul into the job also raised eyebrows in some quarters. She never did want her position to be full-time—they agreed on 25 weeks—which further alienated Vallverdu and Green. The longstanding Murray team broke up last November, leaving bitter feelings all around, and Mauresmo the last woman standing.
The Murray-Mauresmo team has achieved two big finals thus far in 2015, at the Australian Open and Miami (both losses to nemesis Djokovic). But Mauresmo revealed in April that she would be quitting her post after Wimbledon because she is expecting her first child.
“I’ll see what happens with Amélie because I don’t know, and I don’t think she knows, what her priorities are going to be and how she wants to deal with things,” Murray told The Guardian.
That news might have sent alarm bells ringing in the minds of some Murray fans—unnecessarily, it appears. For he was already contemplating the addition of retired Swedish pro Jonas Bjorkman to his team; Mauresmo’s announcement merely forced Murray to make a decision sooner than he had planned.
“I was obviously looking for someone to help anyway, but then it became maybe more urgent and maybe a bigger job,” Murray told The Independent at the end of April. He began hitting with Bjorkman a few days before the start of Munich.
Given the way things work in Murray’s world, can anyone truly be truly surprised that he won the tournament?
It was no cakewalk for Murray in Munich, either. Because of rain, he was forced to play two singles matches on Saturday, and his final opponent was Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber, a two-time Munich champion who had stretched Murray to 12-10 in the fifth set in the third round of the 2014 French Open. Once again, Murray barely beat the versatile Kohlschreiber: 7-6 (4), 5-7, 7-6 (4).
Yet here Murray is, a clay-court champion at last—and at a time when his coaching situation has never been in greater turmoil. The details of Murray’s coaching adventures suggest that his mind is as complicated as his game; they may even imply that his thinking is so asymmetrical when it comes to his needs that it’s impossible to tell what bits of coaching advice actually make it through the maze to manifest in his game. He may be choosing his coaches for reasons that don’t, in the end, have a whole lot to do with his game. And who’s to say there’s anything wrong with that?
The “progressive” implications of Murray’s decision to hire Mauresmo were right at the forefront of the news stories when he first made the announcement. It’s hard to imagine that Murray was unaware—or, for that matter, concerned—that would happen. Some were more inclined to focus on the psychological factors that may have shaped his decision: His mother Judy was the person who developed his game, therefore his comfort level with a female coach was sure to be high. It’s always been that way for Murray.
On the other hand, when Murray hired Lendl, some observers couldn’t help but notice that the boy whose own parents broke up when he was a stripling of 10 had chosen a tough man to lead him—a kind of ultimate authority figure. Murray has said that even before his parents officially divorced, they fought, often to a standstill. “I would get stuck in the middle of their arguments,” Murray once told Britain’s Daily Telegraph. “I would get really upset.”
Thinking too much about such things invariably becomes hopelessly confusing. But there’s a reason we’re drawn to such speculations, just like there’s a reason so many aficionados are attracted to Murray’s sometimes sublime, sometimes infuriating game.
In the coming weeks, we’ll see if Murray will find a way to transform an apparent negative—Mauresmo’s departure—into a positive. Whatever the case, we’ll be left wondering just how much Bjorkman has to do with it all.