If the general grumblings of people paid huge sums of money to whack a small ball around a court a few times a week are to be believed, most of the leading names in the world of men’s tennis limped towards the end of the 2011 season with limbs hanging off, desperately staving off the threat of exhaustion and vultures hovering over their near lifeless corpses. In reality, they were a little bit tired and a wee bit grumpy because it appears they can’t write off the challenge of Roger ‘Old Man’ Federer just yet.
Just under two months have passed since a Fed Express victory brought the curtain down on the season and since then the players have been mainly trying to recharge the batteries and preparing to do it all over again. Or failing that, think of a whole load of new excuses to explain the disappointments of 2012. Chief among them will be Andy ‘Convenient Excuse’ Murray whose search for a Grand Slam victory almost incredibly enters its 8th year.
But is Murray’s reputation as a player not living up to his potential or – more severely – a choker in the majors warranted? In a bid to tell us how the Scot handles expectation and hopefully discover once and for all if he’s Scottish or British, here’s a look at his performances in the Grand Slams tied to the price he was for each of the events began (with Cliff Richard representing the times he’s done well enough to be claimed as an outstanding Briton and Rab C Nesbitt illustrating when the performance can be considered stereotypically shambolicly Scottish.)
First up, I should point out the somewhat flawed method of measurement used for this. A shorter price indicates that he’s expected to do well, but how that expectation manifests itself as pressure in the mind of Murray is very uncertain – it’s not as if he has to pay punters’ winnings out of his pocket. There’s a large constituency of Cliff Richard loving middle-aged ladies (think of an army of Sue Barkers) who won’t place a bet, but will still contribute towards heaping the pressure on him as if the entire future of human civilisation depended on him winning. It’s a yardstick, but admittedly one that’s got the potential to be more wrong than shaking hands with Rafa Nadal after an afternoon of pulling that thong out of his ass. Clearly Murray knows when he’s playing well/poorly, his opponents are struggling/in form and will set his sights accordingly, but solely using betting odds a refection of this is problematic.
It’s also inexact because the goalposts move over time. When he was breaking through early on in his career, reaching a 3rd or a 4th round at a big price could be considered a triumph, but has he developed and got used to competing at the highest level, similar results can only be considered flops, especially given some of the short prices he began the tournaments. Still though, it’s the best we can do so here’s a list of half-assed conclusions we may or may not be able to infer from the data.
The overall picture suggests the ‘pressure being off’ scenario is no bad thing. In 2011 he started 8/1, 14/1, 11/2 and 11/4 for each of the Grand Slams respectively and finished with a haul of one appearance in the final and three semi-finals. On each of those occasions he was considered amongst the leading contenders for the title, but not in the ‘red hot favourite’ way Roger Federer or Rafa Nadal have had to contend with down through the years. The 11/4 in the US Open was the only time he was vying for favouritism, considering his rival for favouritism was Novak Djokovic who was having one of the best seasons in the history of unnecessary grunting, there’s every chance Murray didn’t feel too bothered about the pressure. Likewise in 2008, he reached the quarter finals of the Strawberries and Cream Championships in SW19 and then the final of the God Bless Lax Gun Control Open in Flushing Meadows at unfancied prices of 28/1 and 12/1 respectively.
To vaguely support ‘he cracks like Humpy Dumpty’ theory when under pressure, the main example would have to be the Australian Open in 2009. As ever with Murray, there’s a range of cramps, strains, knocks and misfortunes he can point to as an excuse, but the bottom line is he began the tournament as a 5/2 shot but got knocked out before he had a chance to moan about someone slagging his mum. He had an unexpectedly good run to the last 8 on his least favourite surface in Paris, but then followed that up with a semi-final at Wimbledon when 9/4 and a 4th Round exit in the US when 11/4. Neither result was a calamity, but appreciating honest toil is more difficult when it’s accompanied by a losing bet.
Does it all mean he’s a choker? Well, not really but that won’t stop the label going away. He goes into the latest edition of the Australian Open a 9/2 chance to win it – both 4th seed and 4th favourite. It’s a short price, but he’s got Djokovic, Nadal and the resurgent Federer ahead of him in the pecking order, so he may not feel like it’s his to lose the way he might when a shorter price with more factors in his favour. He could live up to expectation by reaching the latter stages of the tournament, but equally he could put in a performance that’s more lame than a 24 year old man taking his mum everywhere he goes – we just don’t know.
By hiring Ivan Lendl, Murray has at least implicitly acknowledged that his problem is mental rather than technical or physical. That makes it sound like he’s negotiating the labyrinth of complex games and Richard O’Brien’s harmonica playing that is the Crystal Maze, but the point is Murray has the ability to win at least one Grand Slam. The haul of Masters titles and big non-Grand Slam events shows he’s capable of grunting excessively his way past the best players in the world, but when it comes to the big ones, he’s always fallen short. Lendl has all the coaching experience of a brick, but Team Murray are hoping that he’ll be able to somehow instil his gritty Eastern European-ness and knowledge of how to go all the way in Grand Slams in Andy. Will it make a blind bit of difference? Well, it’s a step up from having your mum shouting at you and that’s a start.
Is this the time Andy finally lands a Grand Slam? Have your say below.