Barcelona shares in Murray's glory

Young Scot can join the very best says a man who knows - the Spaniard who taught him most
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The Independent Online

That prediction came in the week when, possibly aided by a quiet word somewhere down the line, Murray was awarded a wild card into the Barcelona ATP tournament for his debut on the pro tour. He lost in the first round. It was a setback which has not been repeated in six months of astounding progress.El futuro es ahora - the future is now.

Asked if he would have got where he is today, 70th in the world rankings, had he not buckled down under the Sanchez-Casal regime, Murray simply says: "No."

So it seemed worth checking out just how this school of excellence, just off the Barcelona ring road and a couple of miles from the airport, turns promising raw material into potential millionaires.

In seven years Sanchez and Casal have transformed a former shabby private club into Europe's best-known tennis place of learning, one which sent Svetlana Kuznetsova forth to win the 2004 US Open, and in addition to Murray has recently placed Luxemburg's Gilles Muller and Juan Monaco of Argentina high in the world rankings at 73 and 92 respectively.

On the top floor of the converted listed farmhouse which houses the administrative section, Sanchez bounds from his office in beaming greeting, happy not only because of the Murray marvels but also because of his own recent appointment as Spain's Davis Cup captain. You might think the 40-year-old Sanchez would be delighted to accept the credit offered him by Murray, but no. He immediately stresses: "What we have done here is not so important. Players like Andy and Rafael Nadal are talented ones, they will make it anyway, doesn't matter where they are."

The foundation of the sort of genius possessed by Murray lies in what Sanchez calls "privileged hands". He explains: "Andy is a natural in the way that Roger Federer is a natural. In tennis, shots are made with the arm, but the hand at the end is what gives you options to do things with the ball. With a privileged hand you have many more options because your opponent isn't sure what you are going to do."

Bracketing Murray with Nadal and Federer, the world's top two, is indication enough that Sanchez knows he has brought forth a potential champion. "With players like Andy you can see the difference even more clearly. In today's tennis, most people play a similar style, they all have the same system. Federer and Andy don't go by the book, so the tennis becomes better because you have more tools."

Providing those tools was the Sanchez priority when Murray arrived, aged 15, at the academy in January 2002. "Andy's mother, Judy, was very important in him coming here because as a professional coach herself she realised that he needed a level of discipline outside Britain, where it is difficult because talent creates a lot of media exposure."

For the first 12 months of his two-and-a-half-year residence, Murray was combining his Spanish training with coaching back home in Scotland which, according to Sanchez, merely confused him and hindered his progress. "He was working one way here and another way in Scotland," Sanchez says. "But when he concentrated only with us, he started to do much better, though he was still very young.

"I worked with him from the first moment he arrived at the academy and, despite his youth, he was always able to place his shots on the sides of the court. This is something you have or don't have, like goalkeepers who stop penalties or not. You don't stop penalties if you don't have the right reaction, and in difficult conditions Andy could always make good angles.

"We did three important things with Andy. First, we made him work a lot on his positional sense. Second, we made him very disciplined, because here you have to do not only tennis but also studies. And third, we made sure he always played against someone better than him, to give him a good level of practice and competition. What is the point of beating lower-class players?"

So has Sanchez been surprised by the number of supposedly better opponents Murray has beaten over the past six months? "No, not at all. I knew this year was going to be really important. I was expecting him to do much better from January until Roland Garros in May, though he had injury problems. I always knew he would do well on hard courts but I was a little surprised at his success on grass. His game still needs to adjust more to grass than the other surfaces, but he did well at Wimbledon because of his hand skills and because of his mind. He dealt with the pressure very well."

As someone who won 15 singles titles on the men's tour and represented Spain for a dozen years in the Davis Cup, Sanchez stresses that constant clay-court practice has been a foundation for Murray's success. "On clay you are always going to hit 100 balls in succession in the same place. That's why those who play only on hard courts or grass, where the ball stays lower, don't have consistency in their groundstrokes. It is a basic requirement for today's tennis to have that consistency."

Sanchez cautions against the expectations generated by Murraymania in his homeland. "It is easier to arrive than stay. Until now, things have been great for him. The other players don't know him or his style. In the second year you have to be able to resist opponents who are finding out the things you don't do well, things they will attack 100 per cent.

"But if you are disciplined and keep working and keep improving you can keep going up. I think he has the drive, the mind and the ambition to do that. When opponents find your weaknesses, you have to com-pensate. If Andy has a weakness, he will have to improve on it. For instance, his serve can be improved a lot, he can improve in the air and can improve on the areas where he plays, because sometimes he is too far behind the baseline.

"Kids need good models. World number ones like Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt played tennis which was not good to copy, a very personal tennis. Federer, who plays almost perfect tennis and can do anything, is going to be very good for the kids, and so can Andy when he develops more. But he has to improve a lot still, the volleys, the serve and the positioning.

"But the future years are going to be good ones for tennis because there are four or five at the top who play a completely different game. Which matches do we remember most? Borg-McEnroe and Becker-Lendl, because of the completely different styles. Another golden time like that is coming in the next five years, and if he keeps up his improvement Andy can be part of that.

"All will depend on where Andy's roof is. If his roof is like Federer's, then he will keep getting better, but if he is happy just being in the top 10, then he will not beat Federer. Doing so well against Federer in that Bangkok final will give him more confidence. Next time he will be cockier and will be thinking he can win. And maybe he can do that next year. But the important thing is having a long career. If every time you can climb higher and higher on the stairs and are competitive, you will achieve big things."

Such achievements, Sanchez noted with a smile, often necessitate a change of plan. "Andy's people called to say he would be coming back here in October, but then his calendar changed. Now he has to understand his needs and priorities. But he wanted to come back here, not to practise, but because all his friends are here, the ones he lived with. I think he wants to come here and be a normal kid. This is the right place to do that."

And if Andy Murray finds the time for such a break, says Sanchez, he would be made very welcome. "We would never close the door on someone who is such a part of us."

The landmark victories of Murray's rise

TAYLOR DENT 6-3 6-3: This win, in the second round of this year's Queen's, revealed Murray as a coming star. In his first grass event he overcame one of the world's top serve-volley experts with the genius of his passing shots and refusal to be rattled.

RADEK STEPANEK 6-4 6-4 6-4: After a straight-sets win in the first round at Wimbledon, Murray staged a repeat - knocking out the 14th seed, who had been specially coached for the event. But Stepanek proved no match for Murray's superior discipline.

ROBBY GINEPRI 4-6 6-4 6-3: Still on a high after reaching the US Open semi-finals, the third-seeded Ginepri lost his temper - and the match - in the third round in Bangkok in the face of Murray's refusal to roll over.

PARADORN SRICHAPHAN 6-7 7-5 6-2: Until Tim Henman, this was the best win of Murray's career, in the Bangkok semi-finals against the best-loved sportsman in Thailand. Again, Murray's mental strength, all-round skills and ball control impressed.

TIM HENMAN 6-2 5-7 7-6: All agree that this first-round win in Basle was the result which saw the changing of the guard as the long-time British No 1 was matched, and eventually overcome, by the Scottish pretender to Henman's crown.