Some time ago I wrote a pretty caustic response to what appeared to be low standards of athleticism at the top of the Pro Women’s Tennis game. I’ve kindof regretted that for months. Foolishly – for my apparent bitterness was surely read as some degree of misogyny – I alleged that certain Brits in particular were not achieving fitness levels commensurate to their status; that they were heavier than they should be; and slower. Worse still I threw this blanket accusation rather widely, on the grounds that one view – mine, as a sports lover and a coach – was that it is simply unacceptable to be attempting to mix it at the top of the world game when your agility is frankly average, when you cannot genuinely sprint, when you are so obviously leaden-footed. Because… you will get found out.
Clearly this is difficult. We can’t remove issues of gender and I didn’t. Knowing and acknowledging that there was no helpful comparison to be made, I trotted out contentious stuff – in truth partly because I was annoyed that a particular player had in my view been allowed to get/stay almost embarrassingly, amateurishly rooted. I could point her – anybody in sports coaching could point her – to agility people and if she hasn’t been then well… WTF’s occurring? Etc. etc. However, in responding to potentially incendiary issues I did speak as both a fan and a supporter but it is likely that I undermined my own argument through politicising it;
“There is no woman Djokovic”.
The intention was to suggest that equivalents to the Serbian’s stunning and recurring athleticism – which I attempt to separate from notions of strength – are rarely seen in the women’s game. Thus it was, on the one hand a compliment to Djokovic and a pointer to a perceived lack elsewhere; the inference being that this dark, intensely lithe and dynamic individual remains a model of relentless chasedownability to which any and all might aspire. And now here he is. In trade-mark near-classical white, against the jarringly cashzh beachbum that is Murray. Another day, another semi.
We know that this match will be charged through with a punishing degree of physical effort as well as outlandish or tactical hitting. It will have electric drama and electric pace – these two being amongst the very best in the world game at keeping themselves in it. Even when us exhausted onlookers pause to breathe/pop a Wrigleys/relax momentarily, at the end of a rally. Doink – what end? The ball – ludicrously – is back and the rally bewitchingly alive. This is what we’ll get. So that even though we know how it will finish – how could we not? – the pretence, the cruel, magnificent pretence towards 50/50 combat at the highest most exhilarating level will go mercilessly on. ‘Til Djokovic wins in 5.
In a first set characterised by restrained excellence punctuated by only slightly too many errors from Murray – 20 to the Serbs 15 – Djokovic prevails 6-3. He then breaks serve in the first game of the second set… and us Brits begin to assemble those familiar Scots laments. Djokovic holds, then Murray is swiftly down at 0-30 in the third game. Then the Scot finds his range, his absurdly felt and blocked backhand rousing him into a sustained period where the best player in the world simply can’t cope with him. He wins the set with a flourish – with a naturally rasping and smouldering and yes Caledonian (Scots-volcanic) flourish. Like he does sometimes, when the mood swings to Fauve heather-purple, as opposed to his other colour – dour, sullen, mardy-bum black. It’s the classic Murray Sensuround experience already, his face already registering Every Tragedy That Ever Happened and (his other face?) Angry Relief.
Murray is putting us through it again. And again, as he dominates the third only to let Djoko break him to access what feels like a critical tie-break. Characteristically with Murray, the game is mapped in greater or lesser shocking zigzags. It’s the antithesis of everything Federer. He sweats; he moans and curses and is belligerent and graceless – except in that quiet movement of his to anticipate and occasionally caress the ball. As the match proceeds towards the Climax We Already Know About, the thought strikes me that the further we get towards the business end of tournaments, the more Murray’s tendency for blips in control emerges. But I vow not to raise this as it surely represents an absolutely natural phenomenon; stress. Why wouldn’t he up and under in and out of everything? That’s pressure; he’s entitled to, no?
But reeling back… isn’t it true that Murray always seems to have this propensity to combust? Or we feel that the possibility is never far away? From first moment to last? And that that may be a key difference between him and Federer/Nadal/Djokovic? In which case it seems reasonable that given Murray’s extraordinary talent, new coach Lendl’s job – or perhaps job for Sports Psychologist Geezer surely twitching somewhere in the wings – is to get to work on the Murray head. The man is Grand Slam Viable if he gets his head right. Deliciously or cruelly, that’s a sporting challenge that we know, and he knows may define his whole career, if not his life. Hence the aforementioned stress.
Murray lost that semi. But you knew that. Despite the 3 break points at 5-All on the Djokovic serve, final set. Despite the usual heroic slalom from in to out, dead to alive, majestic to maudlin. He lost in another epic sports-trauma that many will conclude brings him one match closer to a Grand Slamless conclusion. But what can you do? In his case, maybe you can find a way to maintain focus; to store energy and calm; to develop composure. Maybe there is a way to train for temperate authority under ubertension? Maybe that’s all he needs? For Murray is absolutely top level, needing only to jab his ice-pick in the snowy peak.
The rest of us – like those men and women climbing the rankings – must train harder to compete. Get fitter and stronger. That’s a lot of shuttle runs, a lot of legwork, a lot of unavoidable graft.