Tramlines

Time is ripe for ascendant Murray

Tramlines

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Andy Murray in Brisbane

Poor Andy Murray. Had he come along in any other tennis generation, the world number four (and erstwhile no.2)  would surely have held top spot by now and, most importantly, boast a clutch of Grand Slam titles.

The three above him pretty much share the Slams among themselves, including probably the all-time best talent (Roger Federer), physique (Rafael Nadal) and brain (Novak Djokovic), with each of the three boasting the other two attributes in pretty high measures.

Poor Andy. Disliked by some non-British fans simply for being British, and disliked by some British fans simply for being Scottish; mocked for having 'no personality', but pilloried on the occasion he does speak his mind (which he does with eloquence and pertinence); accused of being a 'boring' player by armchair pundits, but hailed as having the best tactical game by his fellow pros.

Some of Murray's assumed traits — positive and negative — bear startling resemblance to those of his new coach Ivan Lendl: both were seen as lacking charisma and flair; both accused of being baseline grinders even though they had all-action all-court games; most importantly, both failed to win Grand Slams early in their career despite clearly having all the tools to do so.

Indeed, Lendl had to wait until he was 24 to win his first Slam event (in context, a rather long time, given men's players often entered the professional tour in their mid teens in those days); Murray, as pointed out by Lendl's former arch-rival John McEnroe (not the first person to do so), is also 24.

Timing is everything in tennis, on and off the court. Aside from tiny adjustments to his serve and bulk, Murray has developed as far as he will technically and physically and these aspects of his game are pretty darned good.

He will never have Federer's hands, and there is no point in apeing Nadal's physique as his game does not require it to the same extent. That leaves two elements that can be improved, and both come within the mental side of his game.

Tactically, he is one of the best: he draws players in for the kill like no other, can play it safe at the baseline, can hit a variety of winners, is equally adept with power and craft and knows exactly how and when to mix it up, and against whom. Of course there can always be improvement but that comes naturally with age and experience.

Where Murray has always fallen short, however, is his capacity to manage big-match pressure under physical duress.

All the players tire in the kinds of four-to-five setters that are needed to get beyond the semi-finals of Grand Slams, a level Murray now reaches with more frequency than any other. The top three somehow find reserves of skill, energy and desire in those situations, situations where the body cannot do what the mind wants it to.

In the three-setters he has fewer problems: when both he and his opponent (whoever that may be) are not flagging physically, he makes the right decisions.

When placed under that five-set physical pressure — which affects the top three too, even the gluten-free Nole — Murray seems to crack: well, not crack exactly, but to lose belief in his ability to do the unbelievable, the kind of impossible mental reserves that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are able to summon while the lactic acid gnaws away at their insides.

And this, in theory, is where Lendl comes in — Lendl, who despite a robotic efficiency and dedication to his craft on and off the court, seemed unable to go that extra mile in the latter stages of the Slams, a problem either with confidence or focus that in reality is totally commonplace for a lad in his early 20s still learning about life, but one we expect to be freakishly absent in professional athletes.

Lendl, who was accused by fans of lacking personality but was said by fellow professionals to be highly intelligent and charming. Lendl, who lost his first four Grand Slam titles before winning his first at the age of 24 — then going on to win eight.

If superstition is to be followed to the finest point, Murray will not win the Australian Open — he's only lost three Grand Slam finals so far, so is one short of the Lendl stat.

But Tramlines sees it more as eerie coincidence, albeit one that ideally places Lendl to tease out and then wipe out Murray's problem in time for the summer season at least.

Now though the time (and place) is ripe: Murray enjoys the Melbourne hard court and finds more encouragement from his Aussie cousins than he does in Europe. There are also less distractions than the US Open, and the knowledge that most fans back home won't brave the night to watch him at his most prone.

Tramlines is a lot more cautious than its pal Reed as it is a less optimistic and thoroughly more cynical beast.

But with Nole feeling the effects of a superhuman 2011, Rafa not quite right en la cabeza for some reason and Fed a touch hit-and-miss in his 'old' age, it could well be now or never for Muzzah to stick his nose into their trough — although the reborn Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will be telling himself exactly the same thing...

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Speaking of pressure management, spare a thought for poor Samantha Stosur, who admitted to suffering the yips in front of her home crowd in Australia.

It happened again in Sydney as the US Open champion — who has never made it past the fourth round of the Aussie Open in 11 attempts — was sent packing from the pre-Melbourne WTA event by Francesca Schiavone.

"That's what makes the loss so difficult, Melbourne is coming up and I want to start playing well," Stosur said. "I think today I certainly didn't handle that (expectation) side of things at all well.

"I went into it with the right frame of mind, and got out there and it (the crowd support) kind of hit me. It did kind of surprise me how much it kind of hamstrung me today."

It's a shame for her that Lendl has found gainful employment with Murray, although Tramlines is not sure Stosur's mental approach is at fault, more her somewhat hit-and-hope style that leads to the spectacular, both in triumph and defeat.

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And now for the fun stuff... First up, some girls dancing.



And finally, the old and the new as Stefan Edberg tosses up with Jo-Wilfried.

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