Alex Massie

Wimbledon & Murray’s Progress

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Andy Murray serves against Serbia's Victor Troicki in a Men's Singles match in the third round of the 2009 Wimbledon Tennis Championships at the All England Tennis Club. Photo: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images.

So that's week one out of the way at Wimbledon and it's a case of so far so good. Not just for Andy Murray but for Roger Federer too and the prospects of the final most people in this country want to see. Partisan considerations aside, the reason one would like to see a Murray-Federer final is that they're the two most interesting players to watch and the two best shot-makers in the game. And, of course, a Murray-Federer final would guarantee a splendid, pleasing result: either a first slam for Murray or Federer's record-breaking 15th. It would be a final with no downside.

Granted, there's plenty of tennis to be played before we reach that point and either man could be defeated by an opponent playing at the top of their game. However on the evidence of the first week, everything is going very well indeed.

It's curious, however, that some people still seem to doubt Murray. Perhaps that's to be expected until he does win a Major, but it's still somewhat surprising. Consider this piece by William Skidelsky at Prospect:

I am not completely convinced by Murray so far. In the second round against Ernests Gulbis, and now again against Troiki, he has dispatched mediocre opponents with enormous, almost frightening efficiency. (He played much less authoritatively in his first match, against Robert Kendrick.) But he hasn’t played anyone especially good, and I wonder if it will be the same story when he comes up against someone who can really throw some shots at him. Murray’s essentially defensive, aggression-absorbing game works brilliantly against opponents who don’t have the weapons to get the ball past him; he simply rallies with them, teasingly, until they start to crack. But will it work against a Djokovic, a Verdasco or even a Hewitt on top form? Murray didn’t face any especially tough opponents at Queen’s either, which again makes his serene progress through that tournament look more significant than it is. I just have a feeling that Murray could be surprised, and be found wanting, if he suddenly comes up against a top player, or a not quite top player playing out of his skin. In those situations the shortcomings of his game—his tendency to be too passive, and to suddenly drift off—could become apparent, and I wonder if he’ll have the skill and mental strength to adapt.

So the problem is that Murray has won his matches too easily? OK! Look, the lad's played eight matches on grass this year and has lost just one set. One understands that people need to find things to write about, but this is awfully odd stuff. Can one imagine Mr Skidelsky arguing that losing at Queen's and then enduring a brace of five-setters in the first week of Wimbledon constituted the ideal preparation for the latter stages of the championships? Of course not. It would be taken as proof that Murray is feeling the pressure and about to crack.

Skidelsky also makes a mistake, I think, in describing Murray's game as "essentially defensive". True, Murray has a natural counter-punching style and, true again, perhaps relied upon that too often in his early, callow years on tour. But he's not the same player these days. That is, he's happy to play a more defensive game against players who cannot hit the ball through him, knowing that he can wait for them to hit themselves into trouble. But against the best players he's also shown that he can play a different, more aggressive game as and when he needs to.

Since Wimbledon last year he's won seven tournaments and been runner-up in another two. He's won his last three matches aginst Djokovic and his last four against Federer and if all of these have been close matches, they hardly suggest there are too many "shortcomings" in his game. The kid's the third-best player in the world, for crying out loud.

So far this year, only Nadal has a better (overall) record and only Nadal rivals the Scot for the title of Best Returner on Tour. All this might not be quite enough to make him favourite against Federer but it lends weight to the notion that he has no reason to fear anyone else and that, absent an extravagantly brilliant performance from his opponent, Murray has every right to be confident of his chances.

Seriously, people, he's not that far away from winning one of these things. It may not happen next Sunday but it will sometime soon. Folk should chill-out and cease worrying whether he's winning too easily. He's not where he is by fluke and, his second serve aside, the weaknesses in his game are not terribly obvious. And even then, given that he's serving better than at any point in his career, his "frailties" need to be put in their proper context.

Then again, he's a British tennis player at Wimbledon, so faults must be found. Tim Henman suffered appalling abuse from the press for years, simply for the crime of not being quite good enough to defeat Pete Sampras on grass. As disgraces go, that's about as honourable as you get. But Henman, despite not possessing a "killer" shot, was a good enough tennis player to make six Grand Slam semi-finals on three different surfaces. There aren't too many players who can say that.

Of course, Henman also suffered from the peculiarly British view that nice middle-class chaps lack the grit and determination and mental toughness to be champions. Never mind that Murray, though hardly born to landed gentry is hardly from the wrong side of the tracks himself and never mind that most tennis champions, from any country, are from relatively comfortable backgrounds.

Anyway, sure, on a given day, a Hewitt or a Roddick or a Wawrinka or Gonzalez has a chance against Murray. But that's because of the nature of tennis, not because Murray's likely to collapse because he hasn't been tested enough in the first week of the championships.

The kid's grown up a lot in the last 12 months and I'd say he's pretty much ready to win one of these tournaments. But we shall see...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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