Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Melbourne: Warning - “Here be Gunslingers”

image (Photo: Mark Dadswell/Getty Images)

Murray has heard before the calls to adopt a more dynamic tone, to tear into the opposition like a trigger-happy gunslinger. “It doesn’t get me angry, just a bit annoyed because there are so many questions about it,” he said. “People forget I’ve done pretty well with the game I have and it is too easy to sit back and say ‘he needs to come in on that shot, he needs to be more aggressive on that point, he needs to hit the ball harder’.

“In Tim’s [Henman] playing days, you could come forward more because the opponents didn’t necessarily answer pace that well, they would have a weaker shot from the back of the court and may not have returned serve that well. The guys now return incredibly and pass great on both sides and they play with so much spin it’s not as easy as it sounds.

The Times

With what we know about Murray’s game and of the way it’s evolved, I do wonder which trigger happy galoot it was that suggested he reinvent himself as a “trigger-happy gunslinger”.

Not only is such a wholesale reversal likely to be impossible, I’m guessing it’s not quite what his critics had in mind, when they emphasised the need to come forward and to be more aggressive.

What I meant by those things is that he attempt to remain more anchored at the baseline (rather than being bullied behind it) and try and dictate more of the rallies (criticisms I even have of Nadal, despite Murray possessing nothing like his forehand, fitness and unnerving topspin) – not that he turn himself into a serve-volleyer or even a gunslinger cut from the same cloth as James Blake.

For one thing that kind all out aggression goes against the grain of his tendency to want to carve his opponents up with a mixture of slice, drop shots and backhand passes. Having a big serve complements that “holy” trinity quite nicely.

His backhand slice remains for me, amongst the best (if not the very best) in the game, and I wouldn’t want him to change it for the world; but if last year has demonstrated anything, it’s that such passive-aggression won’t cut it at the Slams where the top five are at their very focussed, and the best of the rest at their most ravenous.

I agree that the passing shots of today are light years ahead of the nineties, and I can understand his frustration at the armchair critics - but when did anything like that ever stand in the way of someone as obstinate as Murray, when the need to change has been so abundantly well-demonstrated?

What was very evident [during Hopman Cup] is that Murray was willing to open his shoulders more on his cross-court forehand, a stroke that has been regarded as a defensive option, a rally extender, rather than a rally ender. It was one of my best shots growing up,” he said. “Then the backhand down the line improved and I started to hit that more often. It is practice and confidence.

“I believe I can hit the forehand harder than most players and flatter, I can get the ball to go through the court. I don’t have physical problems to worry about, like when I came back from the wrist injury in 2007 and I was scared to tee off on my backhand.”

The Times

Might I request leave from the bench to disagree with those assertions in the strongest possible terms?

It may have been one of his stronger shots growing up, but to claim he can hit it harder and flatter than most players, sounds like wilful delusion. I hope his coach isn’t the source of such thinly veiled deception.

I think hard and flat and I think, Soderling, Nikolay, and Juan del Potro. I don’t even put Federer in that group, even though he’s far more adept at “getting the ball through the court”.

To be fair to Murray, the bar for hard and flat has been raised like never before with what Juan and Big Rob have achieved in the last 8-9 months.

Juan’s fly-swatter cross-court winner in particular, remains for me the best newly-introduced stroke of 2009. Watching it in the final of Flushing was like witnessing the unveiling of the latest brand of Supercar

Murray needs to respond to this latest threat by recognising it for what it is – and attuning his game accordingly – which at this point sounds like a happy compromise between all those glorious slices and drop shots but also more of a focus on serving big (which he can) and quickly gaining control of the court.

None of this will be possible if he continues to persist in that ridiculous pretence of ‘toying’ with his opponents with those slow-to-medium pace “no balls”, that are pitched from far behind the baseline, and land high up on the opposing service line nicely in the wheelhouse of his opponent.

When that opponent is someone as hungry and capable as Marin Cilic, Andy might find (as he did on at least three separate occasions in 2009) that the “toyer” has quickly become the “toyee”.

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