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Andy Murray can win big again. He just needs to change how he plays
"Murray needs to evolve and add other layers to his game—like his greatest rivals Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic have."
8 Dec, 2020
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In late September, after Andy Murray was drubbed by Stan Wawrinka in the opening round of the French Open, seven-time Grand Slam champion Mats Wilander made some characteristically outspoken comments. Of Andy Murray, a three-time Grand Slam champion himself, Wilander said on Eurosport: “I worry about Andy Murray. I would love to hear him say why he is out there, giving us a false sense of hope that he is going to come back one day.” Wilander added: “I think Andy Murray needs to stop thinking about himself and start thinking about who he was. Does he have a right to be out there taking wildcards from the young players?”

Wilander’s insinuation was that it was wrong of Andy Murray to keep accepting wildcards into tournaments since he was in effect denying younger players valuable opportunities to compete in premier events by taking their berths. The tennis world rebuked Wilander for his comments. Various commentators, eager to defend the popular Scot, were vocal in their disagreement. Daniel Vallverdu, Murray’s coach from 2012–2014 and Wawrinka’s current coach, even called Wilander’s opinion “PATHETIC (sic).”

I was a little more ambivalent.

Of course, Andy Murray has every right to accept wildcards if they’re offered to him. His injury forced him out when he was at the top of the game, he’s won multiple Grand Slams, and he will be a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. By all accounts, Murray has lived a career that aspiring tennis players can only dream of.

But I couldn’t help but agree with a part of Wilander’s sentiment.

The more time I spent on Murray, reflecting on the matches he’s played this year and his performances in general, the more my mind kept coming back to these questions: what the hell is he doing? Why is he still trying to play like he can run for days on end and cover the court like he’s 21 again? And: why hasn’t he, after all this time, added more layers to his game?

A connection between playing style and injury

Much has been made of the beleaguered Scotsman’s sporadic returns to tennis. The Amazon Prime documentary, Resurfacing, covers his tale well, offering an intimate, personal look at the struggles Murray has had to endure to even step onto a tennis court again. A failed surgery in 2018. An invasive hip replacement in 2019. Not to mention the weeks of post-surgery pain, months of repetitive, consistent rehabilitation, and the mental strain of it all.

Seeing him limp around towards the end of his 2017 season—and on-screen in Resurfacing while he endured yet another recovery period after a surgery—another question came to me as well: could it be that Murray’s style of play over his entire career has been the primary cause of all of his injury troubles?

In fact, that Murray’s body is in a state of ruin isn’t hard to believe. Just think about the way he’s played since he made his debut: massaging groundstrokes into corners; extending rallies with his slice backhand; chasing down balls time and time again with his phenomenal foot speed; rarely missing returns; enduring and enduring and enduring.

We can use data to illustrate this point, too. Tennis analysts often refer to the four-shot mark in tennis rallies as a kind of benchmark, as the majority of points on the ATP tour are four shots or fewer (counting the serve). Using data from the 2014, 2015, and 2016 Australian Opens, Dr. Stephanie Kovalchik, a Data Scientist at Zelus Analytics, a startup focused on building sports intelligence platforms, calculated the percentage of a player’s points which exceeded the four-shot mark. Using her data, we can understand which players took part in short, quick points and which players preferred to play longer, more extended points during the Australian Opens of 2014, 2015, and 2016.

The results of her calculations were hardly surprising. Towards the top of the graph, with only 18%–19% of their rallies exceeding the four-shot mark, were Jack Sock, Sam Groth, and John Isner, some of the biggest-hitting (and serving) players on tour at that time. Andy Murray was towards the lower end, with 34% of his rallies going beyond the four-shot mark.

When it came to rally length, you would think that a player like Nadal—known for his tenacity and grit—would top Murray in the percentage of points he played which exceeded four shots.

That wasn’t the case.

Highlighting just how long Murray’s rallies usually lasted, Dr. Kovalchik wrote:

“In fact, Nadal’s frequency of 28% of rally lengths over 4 shots puts him behind Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, who each get into long rallies 34% of the time on hard court, making them [Murray and Djokovic] two of the longest ralliers in the game.”

The data are a little old, so take them with a grain of salt and with all the considerations that would normally go into applying them into our analysis—i.e. court temperature, differing court speeds, different opponents, etc. When consulting with Dr. Kovalchik on using her research, she also cautioned against my inferring that increased rally lengths always meant a higher load or more physical exertion.

The rally length data do, however, make a crude case that Andy Murray has played a particular type of tennis: that of hustling, grinding, and finding ways to extend the point.

Another way we can quantify how Andy Murray burdens his body is by using the Work Rate data that Hawk-Eye’s cameras make available to data scientists. This work was again done by Dr. Kovalchik, but I’ll let Belinda Smith, an ABC News science reporter define what Work Rate is:

“[It] encompasses distance travelled, speed, acceleration and direction change—all from Hawk-Eye’s cameras—which is then converted to the amount of energy burned up.”

And guess who was at the top of that list? One Sir Andy Murray. Dr. Kovalchik noted that:

“[M]y research… at Tennis Australia shows that Murray, one of the biggest ralliers in the game, has the highest work rate per point over the past five years [2012–2017] at the Australian Open of any top 30 player.”

So Murray not only plays a higher percentage of longer points, he also works harder in covering the court than the majority of players on tour. It’s no wonder that he’s had multiple hip surgeries and had to have a metal cap affixed to the top of his femur.

A metal ball being hammered onto Andy Murray’s hip. Taken from Resurfacing

Add a grueling, dogged style of competing that relies explicitly on his movement with a 15-year career, and the connection between playing style and all the injuries becomes more evident. It doesn’t take a tennis analyst (or even myself) to make these points; one simply has to watch highlights of Murray’s play. His game is built on tenacity, hustling, making the right decision in terms of shot selection again and again. His game is built on consistency.

Stuck in his ways and an aging body

Of the Big 4 (now known as the Big 3), Andy Murray has changed the least. Roger Federer disappeared in the middle of 2016 and returned with a revamped, more aggressive backhand. He was rewarded with the 2017 Australian Open crown for his efforts. Once thought of as the ultimate grinder, Rafael Nadal has transitioned over the past decade and a half into controlling the court with his vicious groundstrokes and then capitalizing at net. He has steadily added pace to his first and second serves. One might argue that Novak Djokovic has stayed almost the same since his tour debut, but that would be missing the mark. By quite a lot. Djokovic’s forehand has changed from being a liability to a stroke he can use to marionette opponents around the court. His groundstrokes seem to be struck with even more pace and precision. His fitness and movement? More elastic, smoother, better. His second serve? Getting faster and faster.

Of his prior peers, only Murray seems to be stuck how he was. Watching him compete this year was much the same as watching him play in 2017, 2016, 2015, or 2014. Not much—if anything—has been altered.

Murray’s performances at this year’s US Open made this lack of change even clearer for me. In the first round, he scraped past Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka in a five-set comeback that lasted four hours and 39 minutes. The match was an Andy Murray classic, in that it exemplified his playing style: court-craft, guile, and lots of hustling. But he paid the price in his second round encounter against Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime. Perpetual moodiness has always been a part of Murray’s on-court demeanor, but against Auger-Aliassime, he truly appeared to be struggling; he was a shell of the physical machine he has been in the past. The score of Murray’s second match? 2–6, 3–6, 4–6.

The two matches at Flushing Meadows were a distillation of Murray’s problem today: his body cannot abide the way he treats it anymore. A younger Murray might have bounced back after that long duel with Nishioka to take down Auger-Aliassime.

A worn-down frame with two decades of pounding and multiple surgeries just isn’t as reliable.

The issue isn’t specifically that Murray can’t beat a player near the top of the game today. He proved that he could when he defeated world #7 Alexander Zverev in Cincinnati. The issue is that the way he plays only allows him to put together a few performances before his body protests. And to go far in big tournaments, an athlete has to perform at nearly peak capacity for 10 to 14 days. It’s something I don’t think he’s capable of anymore.

Murray definitely can—and will—cause upsets. Yet that’s all we can expect of him if he doesn’t adjust his tactics: sporadic upsets. And winning a Grand Slam, or even a Masters 1000, is about playing well for a consistently long period of time.

Difficult but necessary changes

So what can he do?

For one thing, Murray could change his racquets. I know what you’re thinking: “Switch frames at this stage of his career? I don’t know….” But consider that Roger Federer made the switch from his 90-square-inch frame to a 97-square-inch frame with a thicker beam at the age of 32. Murray is only a little older. (If by now you’re thinking, “What is this guy talking about? Murray switches his racquets every couple years—every time Head releases new Radicals,” you’ve got some catching up to do.)

Murray still uses the Head PT57A, a 25-year-old, low-powered frame. I’m sure it’s a dream to play with and the ball feels brilliant coming off his strings. But it doesn’t give him much forgiveness or easy access to power—things he needs more of. After all, Murray doesn’t want to end up like Pete Sampras, who at the end of his career regretted not adjusting to the advances in racquet technology and switching to a more forgiving frame.

Tennis players are neurotic creatures, full of tics and rituals and specificities about how and with what they play. My guess, based upon his self-professed indecisiveness in Resurfacing, is that Murray might be even more so than the average. Once tennis players find what they like and what they believe “works,” it’s nearly impossible to convince them to change it. Nevertheless, a more powerful frame is something that I truly believe would help his game.

But the more important growth needs to come in the approach that Murray takes to winning points. He cannot rely on his athleticism, movement, and defense anymore. Those tactics will always be a part of his game, yes, but Murray needs to find a way to spend less time behind the baseline scrambling around. A bigger weapon or a commitment to shortening the point—anything to take the toll off his aging body.

He has the talent and skill to do it. For Murray is not a one-dimensional player. He has only played himself into that mold. He can volley well, he has great hands, and his slice backhand is the envy of many players with two-handed backhands. Some professionals find that when they’ve maxed out their games, they can only play one type of tennis well. Murray is not one of those professionals.

I’m not saying that Murray has to suddenly start rushing to the net like a Pat Rafter on steroids, throwing himself forward at every chance he can get. Only that he needs to figure out a way of taking the load off his body.

The issue is that as players grow and settle into familiar—and successful—routines and patterns of play, it gets harder and harder to revolutionize them. Especially if you’ve been to world #1 with those patterns (as Murray has).

I’m not the only person who believes that Murray needs to remodel how he approaches the game if he’s to be successful again. Jim Courier also agrees. Responding to Mats Wilander’s comments about why Murray was still playing, four-time Grand Slam champion Courier said:

“[Murray] says he doesn’t want to win outside of his game style but, frankly, there are going to be matches like yesterday [Murray’s 1–6, 3–6, 2–6 loss to Wawrinka] where, if he wants to be competitive, he is going to have to hit the ball bigger, he is going to have to play differently. But there are other matches where he can use his guile and his hands and his wonderful imagination to win as well.”

Courier is right. There will be times when Murray will have to rely on his imagination, retrieving skills, and hands to win matches. If he wants to beat players at the top of the game and consistently win big, however, Courier is also right: Murray must change how he plays.

Prophetic words and a way forward

In 2008, when Andy Murray was making a name for himself on tour, frustrating and demoralizing opponents with his unique combination of touch, retrieving ability, and variety, he defeated then #1 Roger Federer 6–7(6), 6–3, 6-4. After their match at the Dubai Championships, Federer commented on Murray’s progress as a player: “I don’t think he has changed his game a whole lot since the first time I played him and I really thought he would have done.” Federer added: “He is going to have to grind it very hard in the next few years if he is going to play this way. He stands way behind the court. You have to do a lot of running and he tends to wait for the mistakes of his opponent.”

Many saw Federer’s comments as just the words of a sore loser. And perhaps they were. Yet they contained a kernel of truth in them. 12 years later, we can see the outcome of Murray’s inability—perhaps stubbornness—to adjust his playing style: a hip that fell apart while he was at the top of the game, nearly two years of surgeries and rehabs, constant pain that was only gotten rid of after invasive surgery, and a body that struggles to perform consistently well day after day.

Don’t get me wrong. Andy Murray is one of the most capable men to have ever picked up a tennis racquet. And I’ve been a fan ever since I saw him hold back tears after his loss to Federer in the 2012 Wimbledon final. He has already achieved an outstanding career. Three Grand Slams. Two Olympic Gold Medals. 76 weeks at #2 in the world, and 41 consecutive weeks at #1, between November 2016 to August 2017. And, of course, he did this all while competing against three of the best men to ever play tennis. That should speak for itself.

Yet his 2020 return was not up to standard. Speaking to French player Gael Monfils and a fan during a Twitch stream in mid-November, Murray said: “Next year the results are going to be much better. I can promise you that.”

I hope that’s the case.

But if he’s to find even a modicum of the success that he’s achieved in years gone by, he’s going to have to adjust his mindset—and, importantly, how he plays.

Murray needs to evolve and add other layers to his game—like his greatest rivals Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic have. If he can only make a few changes—and they needn’t necessarily be the ones I’ve suggested—I’m sure that he has it within him to win on the biggest stages again.◉

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4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Murray the elite grinder! Great read

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Hey Gerard, glad you enjoyed it! Murray needs to be less of a grinder IMHO!

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    Having had the operation Andy has had twice (just recovering from my second one), my experience was yes… the grinding was out. There will be no marathons in my future (though on the other hand I’m crushing my deadlifts). No more baseline scampering, more heavy weight lifting to become stronger and so you can hit harder.
    But alas, we are not Andy and we do not have to face the choices he does. Fascinating to see what he does.
    Loving your column BTW – keep up the good work.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Hey Kevin! It does seem a little superhuman that after such invasive surgeries, he’s back to playing at such a high level. It will be interesting to see him compete in 2021. My fingers are really crossed that he’ll do well. And thank you for the compliment—it’s much appreciated!

      Reply

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