It's service with a smile for hungry Murray
What did Britain's No 1 talk about at dinner while he was waiting for the Nadal match to continue? Certainly not tennis. And his team are providing all the right ingredients. By Paul Newman
Sunday 14 September 2008
Andy Murray was facing the most agonising wait of his life. Two sets up against Rafael Nadal, the Scot had been forced off court by bad weather and would not resume his US Open semi-final until the following afternoon. At stake would be a place in his first Grand Slam final, against Roger Federer, the player he rates as the greatest of all time.
There was much to consider. Should he take the game to Nadal the next day and try to blast him off the court? Should he try to surprise him with serve-and-volley? Or feed him a mixture of gentle, sliced backhands and pounding shots down the line? Or try to outlast him, in thebelief that the world No 1 wasfeeling the effects of a demanding summer?
When Team Murray, including his coach, Miles Maclagan, his agent, Patricio Apey, and his physical trainers, met for dinner last Saturday, the talk was lively but the subjects might have surprised. "Do you know what was really nice? No one mentioned tennis the whole dinner," Apey revealed.
"We have our times when we talk about tennis, but otherwise we don't," Maclagan added. "We don't talk about politics, we don't talk about finance. We tease each other. We talk about girls and things that have been done that day. Nothing much, really."
Ask the British No 1 for the key to his success this year and he will usually cite his improved fitness. Not only can Murray outlast most players but he goes on court knowing he can concentrate on striking a tennis ball rather than worry if he will be able to go the distance. But just as important is his evident happiness off the court.
When Murray sacked Brad Gilbert at the end of last year, some doubted the wisdom of dismissing one of the game's most renowned coaches and replacing him with a team of specialists. Didn't he need one commanding voice, a figure of authority and experience, to guide him through the mad maze of the international tennis circuit? The proof is in the pudding. Since he put his new team together, Murray has reached his first Grand Slam final and played his best Wimbledon. He has won his first Masters Series title and, at 21, climbed to No 4 in the world rankings, equalling the highest position achieved by Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski.
Murray ended the 2007 season impressively, going within one match of reaching the Masters Cup despite an injury-troubled year that had seen him miss both Wimbledon and the French Open. But the signs of unhappiness off the court were clear.
On tour he increasingly surrounded himself with family and friends as his relationship with Gilbert deteriorated. He never lost respect for the former coach of Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, but the mix of a brash and fast-talking 46-year-old American and a quietly spoken young Scot would never last.
In the new, rotating entourage, Maclagan is the permanent fixture in the coaching team but has been aided by the doubles specialist Louis Cayer and Alex Corretja, the former French Open finalist. Matt Little and Jez Green work on Murray's physical preparation, Andy Ireland is his physiotherapist and Daniel Vallverdu and Carlos Mier act as hitting partners and on-tour buddies. Off-court support is provided by Apey and Stuart Higgins, his PR consultant, while his mother, Judy, and girlfriend, Kim Sears, join him whenever possible.
The contrast between Gilbert and Maclagan could not be greater. Maclagan, 33, was born in Zambia of Scottish parents and represented Britain in the Davis Cup in a modest playing career. Softly spoken and self-effacing, he believes the key to the team's success has been their co-operative approach.
"People have stayed within their role," Maclagan said. "I think problems come when people start telling others how to do their job. Between us we haven't done that. They're not big egos. No one is trying to stab each other in the back.
"We're a genuinely happy bunch. We laugh a lot. We spend our dinners and our times before matches laughing.
"I think we're all very clear who drives the team, and that's Andy. We're all very low-key and I think we all know our position well. We overlap a little bit, but that's the nature of things, and we all talk about it. We try to help each other out.
"I hope I help Andy in some areas, though he's so unbelievably naturally talented and he plays so well himself that I'd be fooling myself if I thought I'd manufactured this career for him. I can maybe help him stay on track a little bit. We talk after matches about what went well and what didn't. We also do it before every match. I'll say: 'What do you think?' He'll say: 'I think this.' I'll say: 'Well, last time you came off you said that this went well or that went well.' Andy drives the whole thing. You add little bits and reminders and try to keep him on the right track."
How do Gilbert and Maclagan compare? "Obviously Brad's much more talkative than Miles," Murray said. "He's more in-your-face. I like that about American culture, but because I was travelling purely with Brad it was tough to get away from it.
"If I had the set-up then that I have now it would have made a big difference. Now I'm much, much happier. Miles is relaxed, but he's very excited about having the chance to work with me. I'm enjoying working with him. It's new for all of us."
He added: "When you're not enjoying your work, you take a lot of baggage home with you and you become a little bit miserable. At the end of last year I wasn't particularly enjoying myself. Now I'm really enjoying travelling with the guys that I've got around me. I'm much closer to them. We get on great and they make me feel good about myself and about my game."
The US Open convinced Murray that he has it in him to win a Grand Slam. His back-from-the-dead triumph over Jürgen Melzer and hard-fought wins over Michael Llodra and Juan Martin del Potro proved his physical and mental strength; the victory over Nadal completed his set against the top players.
"I'd be very disappointed with myself if I worked this hard and never won a Slam," Murray said. "I've set myself goals for the last five or six years and my world ranking is not something that's motivated me as much as winning a Slam. That's why I'm disappointed just now. I was close, three sets away. I have to work really hard, but I'm much closer than I was even at Wimbledon.
"I understand that making the final of a Grand Slam is a good achievement, but it's the players who win things that are remembered. I felt that watching the opening ceremony in New York. All of the winners of the past 40 years came out, but not the runners-up."
Maclagan shares Murray's view that there is not one aspect of his game and physical preparation that cannot be worked on. "Just because things are very good doesn't mean they can't improve," Maclagan said. "His fitness has been there for everyone to see and it's at a very good place, but he still needs to improve. His returns are some of the best in the world but he still has that little drive to keep improving.
"He'll have slightly different challenges because he'll become the hunted rather than the hunter, which is something that Federer has dealt with unbelievably well over the last few years. Andy is very driven and very smart. I think there are some exciting times ahead."
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