Andy Murray: 'With Brad I know what I'm doing out there'

In the last of our series of interviews with major sporting figures for whom 2006 was a pivotal year, Andy Murray reflects on his amazing charge up the rankings, explains his change of coach and recalls his first ATP Tour win and a victory over the world No 1

It was not what you might have expected in a job interview, especially if you were the one doing the recruiting. Andy Murray was thinking of hiring Brad Gilbert as his new coach and was in the middle of their first meeting, at this year's French Open in Paris, when the American asked him to take off his shirt, so that he could get a better idea of his physique.

"For most people I wouldn't have done that, but because it was him I took it off," Murray said. "That was what I liked. He has very strong opinions. And when you get two people together like me and him with very strong opinions, you either get on or it blows up.

"He didn't really listen much, but that was another of the things I quite liked. I felt I needed someone who could tell me what to do. If I was going to go and run for 10 miles, I'd go and run for 10 miles." Gilbert has been doing most of the talking ever since, but Murray - who decided at that first meeting that the American was the coach he wanted - has no complaints. If the first turning point in the 19-year-old Scot's breakthrough year, his maiden tournament victory in San Jose in February, came when Mark Petchey was still his coach, it has been under Gilbert that Murray has established himself as a major player on the international stage.

In the five months since he started working with Andre Agassi's former coach, Murray has climbed from No 35 to No 17 in the world, played in the last 16 of the US Open, reached one tournament final (in Washington) and a Masters series semi-final (in Toronto) and beaten major opponents like Roger Federer, the world No 1, and Ivan Ljubicic, the No 3, in Masters events in Cincinnati and Madrid respectively.

Those who have doubted Murray's credentials in a year which has also brought occasional disappointments should consider that he will not be out of his teens until next May; when Federer was Murray's age he finished the year ranked No 29 in the world and had yet to win a title.

If there was one performance that made the rest of the game take notice of Murray it was his stunning 7-5, 6-4 victory over Federer in August. Rafael Nadal, who got the better of the Wimbledon champion in four finals in the first half of the year, is the only other player to beat him in 2006.

While excuses were made for Federer, who had played seven matches in the previous eight days, it was conveniently forgotten that Murray had played six times over the same period and, moreover, had played five matches in Washington the week before that, when the Swiss was not competing.

"Even when Federer loses to Nadal on clay everyone says he didn't play his best match, or that he could have done this or that better," Murray said. "The opponent sometimes doesn't get the credit. He only lost five times this year, so how many times did he not play at his best and still win? I know he didn't play his best against me, but he still has to be beaten and only Nadal and myself did that this year."

Having been encouraged by his performance in losing two tight sets against Federer in his first senior final in Bangkok last year, Murray went on court in Cincinnati believing he could win, as did his coach. "Brad said very little before I went on," Murray recalled. "He gave me one tip before the match - though I'm not going to tell you what it was. I think he spoke to Agassi beforehand. He speaks to him pretty much every couple of days anyway. Brad told me to believe that I could win, to have fun and go and do it. That was the last thing he said to me before I went on.

"After the match I saw Brad as I came off court and he just said to me: 'Act like you belong.' When I went into the locker room a few of the other guys came up to me and said things like: 'Good job.' Afterwards I just had a shower, went for a burger with Brad and had a massage. That became my routine for the week after each match." It was no surprise that Murray enjoyed his biggest win in the States. His affinity with the country and its people was evident at this year's US Open, where he was hugely popular with the crowds.

"I love America," he said. "All the major milestones in my career so far have been in the States: I won the Orange Bowl there when I was 12, I won the US Open junior title, my first senior tournament in San Jose. I always felt I would work well with an American like Brad. I'd prefer to be with someone who's in your face and always positive rather than someone who's maybe a bit negative and doesn't speak as much."

Parting from Petchey in the spring was one of Murray's hardest decisions. "He's a great coach and helped me a lot with my game," he said. "However, I just felt that things were starting to get progressively worse. We were disagreeing on a lot of things and I wanted to stop on a high note, when I was ranked No 37 in the world, having been No 437 or whatever it was when we started working together last year." Murray denies that he and Petchey saw his game differently, with the coach wanting him to be more aggressive and the player feeling more comfortable as a counter-puncher. "It wasn't a case of him trying to pull me in one direction. I just think that it's easy to say to someone that you need to be more aggressive. You need to know how to be more aggressive.

"With Brad now I know what I'm doing out there. I know what I need to work on and you have to be able to change during matches. It's a case of knowing how to play each opponent. I know my failure to be more aggressive has cost me dearly in some matches where I've done a lot of running. That's something I'll work on in the next few weeks before the Australian Open." Next month's Grand Slam tournament Down Under is a timely reminder of the progress Murray has made in the last year, on and off the court. In particular, he has learnt much about coping with the close attentions of the media.

If Murray was unhappy with what he saw as unrealistic media expectations when he lost to Juan Ignacio Chela in the first round in Melbourne, he was aghast at some of the outraged reaction to his swearing in a Davis Cup tie in Glasgow and found himself at the centre of controversies for innocuous remarks about women's tennis and who he would be supporting at the World Cup.

"I was getting frustrated with that sort of thing but now I think I handle it with much more class than I did at the start of the year," Murray said. "I'm not getting down about questions that I'm being asked or stories that are written about me. It doesn't affect me any more." That growing maturity brings its own rewards, for Murray has become one of the game's most marketable figures. TAG Heuer, for example, invited the Scot to join its select group of sponsored "ambassadors", which includes Tiger Woods, Brad Pitt and Maria Sharapova, the only other tennis player on the Swiss watch company's books.

If falling at the first hurdle in Melbourne dented Murray's confidence it was quickly restored in California, where he beat Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt in successive matches to win his first title. "I played great for the whole week in San Jose, from the moment I was broken in my first service game against Mardy Fish and went 2-0 down," Murray recalled.

"Then I was thinking: 'Oh God, this is going to be another bad week.' But after that I won seven or eight games in a row and started playing great. I only played one bad set in the whole tournament, against Hewitt in the final. That was probably down to nerves and it was good to come back against, and beat, a player of his class." Nevertheless, inconsistency became a recurring theme of Murray's year. Some niggling injuries in the spring did not help during a run of 10 defeats in 13 matches, though he has always insisted there is no long-term problem with his fitness. "I just don't see how you can be in the top 20 in the world when you're only 19 years old and have a problem with your body," he said.

"I played the whole year without withdrawing from a single tournament through injury. All of the other young guys were pulling out. [Gaël] Monfils got injured after Wimbledon, [Richard] Gasquet was injured for two months after the Davis Cup, Nadal was injured for five months at the end of last year, [Novak] Djokovic pulled out of three or four tournaments this year."

Murray put his back problems down to growing pains, which remain a factor. "I'm still growing," he said. "In the two weeks I had off last month I grew five millimetres. I had some problems with my knees when I started practising again and I think that was because I'm still growing and also because I'd taken some time off. Maybe my body was recovering." The springtime blues were rapidly dispelled in the summer. "I literally felt things change from the moment I walked out on to Centre Court at Wimbledon," Murray said. "I was nervous in my first few games against [Nicolas] Massu, but my confidence came back very quickly. I felt a different player. In a very short space of time I didn't feel nervous. I wasn't low on confidence, I was just enjoying being out there.

"I think that showed in the way I played. Before Wimbledon I was getting annoyed on court and having a few injury problems. I probably wasn't at my happiest until that point, but from there onwards my tennis got so much better, right to the end of the year."

The straight-sets Wimbledon win over Roddick, the No 3 seed, brought particular pleasure. "I was getting sliced lobs over his head, I was bringing him into the net, I was hitting passing shots, I was reading his serve. I got broken once in the whole match and even then I broke him straight back.

"It was as if everything was going my way, even though we exchanged some words across the net. I hit a forehand that hit the line and was called out, but the umpire correctly overruled. I started speaking to the umpire and Roddick turned round and said: 'What are you complaining about? You haven't had an over-rule against you the whole match.' I said something back to him and he started trying to get in my face a bit. I felt I dealt with everything well during the match. I didn't get angry once, I didn't throw my racket once, I wasn't shouting. I just played my best tennis."

More was to follow on his favoured hard courts in north America. Murray rates his wins over Federer in Cincinnati and Hewitt in San Jose alongside his mauling of Roddick at Wimbledon as his year's best victories, though he reckons his finest tennis was in a three-set victory over Jarkko Nieminen in Toronto. "I was enjoying the way I was playing that day," he said. "I was coming into the net. I think I won maybe 27 out of 32 net points. I was hitting good volleys and I was dictating all of the points."

Nevertheless, the wins over Roddick at Wimbledon and Fernando Gonzalez, the No 10 seed, at the US Open were followed by disappointing exits at the hands of Marcos Baghdatis and Nikolai Davydenko. Murray was not unhappy with his display against Davydenko, who went on to reach the semi-finals and finish the year as world No 3, but felt he played poorly against Baghdatis.

"I was missing returns which I don't normally do, making basic mistakes. I changed my game around a bit in the third set. I started playing a bit of serve-and-volley. I had a chance when I was 6-5 up and 30-30 second serve, but I mis-hit a backhand return off the second serve, which is generally my best shot. I couldn't quite get any momentum. I just wasn't playing well enough."

The good news for British fans is that Gilbert believes Wimbledon could provide Murray with his best chance of winning a Grand Slam tournament. And Murray himself? "I still think the courts at the US Open suit my game a bit better, but maybe there aren't as many guys who play as well on grass. If a couple of the big guys fall it might open up a bit more. The draw doesn't tend to open up as much at the US Open because there are so many guys who can play well on hard courts."

Andy Murray is a TAG Heuer UK ambassador

Murray's year Magic moments

* Where did you watch the World Cup final? At a tournament at Newport, Rhode Island. I was a bit disappointed that Zidane didn't headbutt Materazzi on the nose. What Materazzi said was out of order. It was going to be Zidane's last match anyway, so why just headbutt him in the chest?

* Which event outside of your own sport did you most enjoy watching? The event I enjoyed most over the last 18 months or so was Floyd Mayweather Jnr beating Arturo Gatti inside six rounds. Mayweather was brilliant. Gatti was constantly getting hit but Mayweather was almost untouched.

* What was the funniest thing that happened to you this year? In Washington Brad [Gilbert] asked me the name of one of the ATP Tour managers, Stephen Duckitt. For a laugh I told him it was Paul. For the rest of the week whenever Brad saw Stephen he'd say: 'Hi, Paul!' On the night before the final I said to Brad: 'I think I'd better tell you his name is actually Stephen.' Brad was distraught and said: 'I must apologise to him.' He rushed over to see Stephen but just missed him as he'd got into a lift. The next day Brad was so confused he saw one of the trainers, whose name is Paul, and said: 'I'm so sorry, Stephen, I've been calling you Paul all week.' Paul looked very confused and replied: 'But I am Paul.' Brad was just totally bewildered.

* What is your main aim for 2007? I have a world ranking in mind but I'm not going to make that public because if I had to take a couple of months off with injury it could be tough getting my ranking up, especially at the level I'm at now. One opponent I'd love to play next year is Rafael Nadal. I've played against a lot of the top 10 guys but not him. I'd rather not play him on clay, but if we met on an American hard court it would be a good chance to see where I'm at.

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