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Review of the Year
The brilliance and frailty of the boy who would be king
The Scottish teenager eclipsed Henman at Wimbledon and then beat him in their first meeting to prove his rising stature
Saturday December 24, 2005
Just before Wimbledon this year Andy Murray and his mother, Judy, were strolling through the All England Club having finished a practice session in Aorangi Park. The teenager paused briefly outside Centre Court and, with the transparent confidence of youth, asserted: "I want to play in there."
"You may have to wait two or three years," said his mother, smiling. "Why?" he replied. The response typified Murray's inner belief that has always been integral to his game and his progress. Little more than a week later the 18-year-old prodigy from Dunblane stepped out into the most famous tennis arena in the world to play Argentina's David Nalbandian, the 2002 Wimbledon runner-up, in a five-set third-round match that enthralled those there and millions more watching on television.
Murray lost, yet by reaching the last 32 on his grand slam debut he had outlasted both Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski. Suddenly, dramatically, he shifted the parameters of the British game. A decade of "Come on, Tim" and "Come on, Greg" had been superseded by exhortations in his name and, if they sounded several levels more frenetic, then it was because the sporting world had moved on and the demands had intensified. Enter the young hero into a personality-driven world.
Three-and-a-half months later and the cry for change reached frenzied heights when the old and the new collided for the first time, Murray drawing Henman in his opening match of the Davidoff Swiss Indoors in Basle, a title Henman won in 1998 and 2001. Discounting meetings at the now defunct British Championships, there had been nine previous so-called Battles of Britain between Henman and Rusedski since 1996, with Henman the 7-2 overall winner. Now his talent and status were on the line against Murray.
Mark Petchey, Murray's coach, knew only too well how Henman would be feeling: "I played Tim a couple of times when he was up and coming and lost twice. It was an uncomfortable experience and I felt a lot of pressure. You could see Tim was going to be a great player but, as the older and higher-ranked player, I was desperate not to lose."
Judy Murray, too, was on edge and took herself off to the hairdresser in Edinburgh that day in October. "I don't like watching Andy on television at the best of times because it's impossible to feel really involved. Anyway I knew this was going to be an extremely difficult match for him in all ways." Having her hair done offered an escape. "I knew nobody would be talking about tennis."
On the return to her car she could not resist turning on the radio. "Andy had served for the match at 5-4 in the second set and they were in the third. I thought 'Oh no' and switched off." She drove home to Dunblane, listening resolutely to music, and waited for her mobile phone to trill. The text duly came. Murray had won 6-2, 5-7, 7-6 and the British tennis world tilted on its axis.
Murray, playing only his 22nd singles match at Davis Cup, grand slam and ATP Tour level, had felled his boyhood hero. True, the 31-year-old Henman, the British No1 for virtually a decade save for the sporadic intervention of Rusedski, was at a wretchedly low ebb, having won only three matches since his second-round defeat at Wimbledon in June, and he suffered a further injury during this match. But it was the occasion that mattered rather than the context.
Murray had seized his moment, although anybody now viewing the post-match photograph of the pair heading towards the obligatory handshakes with the umpire might be forgiven for supposing the tyro had lost. Lingering slightly behind Henman, with his head bowed and his right hand running rather awkwardly along the net cord, Murray looks anything but the epitome of joy. "For Andy this victory was a huge thing," says Judy. If he didn't show it, this was simply because his respect for Henman conditioned his response to what he later described as the "biggest win of my life".
The young Scot may wear his heart on his sleeve when playing - roaring against fate, leaping and punching the air after a winning shot - yet off-court he speaks in deep, measured tones, seemingly weighing every word. So that when he said, "To win against someone I have so much respect for is a pretty good deal for me and also something that's very special emotionally", the slightly understated effect was doubly forceful, emphasising the abrupt generational shift few had seriously considered when the year began.
"It certainly all happened a lot sooner than expected," says Judy. "I suppose we were looking towards a ranking of around 150-200 by the end of this year." Remarkably Murray rose from outside the world's top 400 to No63 at his highest point, an extraordinary leap for one so young. Henman, nervous at the outset, was, understandably, inclined to see this defeat in the overall context of his career as "just another match". For almost everybody else it was the changing of the guard.
As recently as May Murray's mother had her thoughts set on him adding the junior French Open to the US Open title he had won the previous year at Flushing Meadows. "I knew it wouldn't be easy because he had only recently split with his coach, and on top of that he got food poisoning. He was struggling to find any rhythm on the clay but played really well in the quarter-finals and I thought he'd go on to win the title." Instead, in a turbulent, tetchy encounter Murray lost in the semis against Croatia's Marin Cilic.
"I felt gutted but was determined not to show it," says Judy. To her surprise her son was not in the least perturbed. "He just looked at me and said: 'Oh well, I'll be able to get back to London and practise for the grass.'" It was at that moment she realised that mentally he had moved on. A curtain had been drawn on his junior tennis. His apprenticeship was over. "What happened at Queen's and Wimbledon may not have happened if he had not gone back and got in those extra days of practice. He hit with some of the world's best players and it was there and then that he knew this was where he wanted to be."
Murray never looked back. Two wins at the Stella Artois Championships and a couple more at Wimbledon brought rich praise from his fellow professionals with Sweden's Thomas Johansson, the 2002 Australian Open champion and former world No7, predicting confidently that Murray would, without doubt, become a top-50 player: "He serves 140 miles per hour and to do that at 18 is very impressive. He is going to be really, really good."
The accolades have continued, though coupled with cautions concerning his physical fitness. This he has already addressed by visiting a specialist centre in Dijon and working out a tough preparation programme this month in South Africa, where his mother will join him for Christmas before they move on to his first tournament of the year in Adelaide.
It is not his initial successes at the majors and on the ATP Tour that have impressedJudy, who coached him before he left Scotland and joined the Sanchez Casal tennis academy in Barcelona; it is the way he reacted off court. "The most remarkable thing has been the way he has handled matters and done everything that has been asked of him," she says. "He has remained polite and level-headed and, as his mum, that has been important."
Some have marked him down as a rebel. "No, he's never been rebellious by nature," says Judy. "Stubborn, yes." And she is only too aware that there may be difficulties ahead as the pressure and expectations grow. Unlike Henman he is unlikely to bottle matters up. "There may be times when he doesn't feel like speaking to people and he will always be honest. He can be your typical grumpy teenager."
It might be argued that John McEnroe did him no favours when he suggested at this year's US Open that Murray would be in the top 20 by the same time next year and perhaps capable of breaking into the top 10. "It's very flattering," says Murray, while making no effort to play the shrinking violet. His belief is implicit that he can make it happen, if not next year, then the one after. Judy feels his best tennis will develop in two or three years but then she thought the same about his chances of playing on Centre Court. His rapid progress, it seems, is taking everyone by surprise, even his mum.
Henman has always been supportive and has admired particularly Murray's attitude and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the game. Rusedski is similarly enthusiastic. "Andy is not your average young person. He hates to lose at anything and I think with him, myself and Tim it is the same sort of mentality, even though we show it in three different ways."
The one obvious difference is that Henman and Rusedski were able to feed off each other. Murray may have to plough a lone furrow and that will inevitably increase the pressure on him. "He was thrown into the limelight during Queen's and handled it remarkably well," says Judy, "but during Wimbledon Mark [Petchey] and I decided he should do just what was expected and any other requests we would handle."
This openness, coupled with Murray's natural ability to coin a telling phrase, has already engendered a different mood from the Henman-Rusedski years and one more likely to strike a chord with a younger generation. Never in a million years would the ever so correct Tim and Greg have been regarded as cool whereas Andy, with his hooded tops and his iPod, patently is. If his victory over Henman in Switzerland was indeed the changing of the guard, then it surely also had the potential to be so much more. It was not intrinsically their fault but neither Rusedski nor Henman ever possessed the "wow" factor of Freddie Flintoff or Wayne Rooney.
Henman invariably looked tense and miserable, even when he was winning, while when Rusedski flipped his lid on Centre Court and treated BBC tea-time viewers to a torrent of choice expletives, he was metaphorically patted on the head with the whispered aside: "He's Canadian, you know."
Murray, whether it was keeling over with cramp at Queen's, throwing-up at Flushing Meadows, bitterly complaining to the umpire about a dodgy call in one of his televised exhibition matches against Rusedski in Aberdeen or hitting the most sublime of winners against the world No1 Roger Federer in the Thailand Open final, brought the drama of the sport to a new audience. He showed them brilliance, petulance and frailty. He showed he was human and that tennis could live on the edge.
Henman and Rusedski may never have won a slam but between them they have 26 titles and both have been as high as No4 in the world. It was a legacy that appeared to have fallen on stony ground until Murray emerged. These are very early days but, just as the door of the British cupboard swung open to reveal bare shelves, the Scottish teenager arrived from around the back and may - just may - offer riches beyond the capabilities of Henman and Rusedski.
'He knows exactly what his opponents like the least'
Saturday December 24, 2005
During my career I practised with several players just before they made their breakthrough. I can remember hitting with a young Goran Ivanisevic in Stockholm and thinking "My God, this guy is playing like some of the best in the world" - which at the time was not reflected in his ranking. And it has been the same with Andy Murray.
These days a lot of the players do not have the skills to mix up their play like we saw Andy do at Wimbledon. It's a question of doing it at the right time and, as he matures, you may see a little less of it. But he has very good tactical awareness and knows exactly what his opponents like the least. He's a bit like a modern-day Miloslav Mecir, a great guy who had the ability to make anybody look inferior with the way he massaged the ball around the court. But, unlike Andy, he did not have a huge serve or forehand and that is what makes Andy so special.
Of course, next year will be very different because the top players will know about him and be ready, while there will be many more expectations of his performance. But I know he will embrace the challenge with open arms. Of course there may be a levelling off, as that tends to happen to many rising players. Rafael Nadal broke through into the top 50 in 2003 and then dropped back a few places the next year when he also had injury problems. But this time next year I would expect Andy to be consolidated inside the top 30. From there it might take longer but his biggest quality is his single-mindedness, coupled with a dogged mentality. You can't buy that.
The thing you notice most about the exceptionally good players is the time they have to play their shots. When Tim Henman came on the scene, Greg Rusedski was pretty much established and serving exceptionally fast, as we all know. I could only hope to block returns but Tim was able to pick up the ball so quickly and, with his excellent hand-eye coordination, could take a full swing. He would also do it when the pressure was on and this is a rare quality in a player.
But I don't think that when Tim was a junior it was obvious he would do as well as he has, despite many comments to the contrary. For Tim, beating Greg to become the national champion in 1995 was the turning point and we also won the doubles together that year. What he has achieved since then is absolutely exceptional and should be acknowledged as such.
I was used to playing British players and I'd always thought it was important to put yourself on the line, so nobody could accuse you of ducking out, and by and large my record was good. So I didn't mind too much when Tim came along. It would have been better for my tennis to be No2, No3 or No4 behind a Tim Henman. Anyway I knew him very well, realised I was coming to the end of my career and tried to be realistic.
I brought Andy to Luxembourg for our Davis Cup tie in 2004 for the experience because he was one of Britain's best young players. At the time he had been injured a lot and we saw it as a bit of a boost for him.
I suppose quite a few people were taken by surprise at the quality of his play when he teamed up with Dave Sherwood for the first time in our win against Israel earlier this year but all those who had been involved with him in the Davis Cup set-up knew he could play at that level. What we couldn't be sure of was whether he could do it under pressure and his performance that day in Tel Aviv opened a lot of people's eyes.
· Jeremy Bates is the Great Britain Davis Cup captain and former British No1, who won one ATP Tour title during his playing career - in Seoul in 1994 - and enjoyed his highest world ranking of 54 in 1995.