James Lawton: Instead of his fans' blind faith Murray needs belief in himself
What is the good of a searing backhand, an array of lacerating passing shots and an often sublime touch,if they are so often left in the armoury?
Monday 20 June 2011
In one way at least, Murraymania is a misnomer. It is not maniacal to believe that a player as talented as the man from Dunblane can win Wimbledon. However, we can hardly pretend, at least not those of us who don't automatically lose our marbles at the first glimpse of Henman Hill, it is much more than a fancy based on an act of faith.
There are moments, we have seen again this year, when he unfurls a game that can compete with the men who present such a barrier to his breakthrough: Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
He has exquisite shots which so often lift him above the wearisome evidence of an ill-formed competitive nature. When he swears and yelps and gesticulates his frustration to a stony-faced entourage, you do not consign him to the waste bin of futility because you know that his very next act might be a shot which any of the tennis greats would have happily borrowed. So there is obligatory respect for the potential of one of the most gifted performers of his generation.
Where the faith, even irrationality, enters the calculation is with the assumption that because he feels good about himself for the moment, because he won a depleted Queen's with an extravagant flourish and produced his best ever tennis on the red clay of Paris, there is a compelling reason to believe that he has significantly closed the gap between himself and the three best players in the world.
This, let's be honest, has rather more to do with the annual wishfulness of the Centre Court crowd than any hard evidence that Murray has managed the quantum leap required to win a Grand Slam against opponents who, after making their own such moves down the years, have accumulated a total of 28 majors.
Djokovic, it is true, has a mere two of them but when he collected his second, at Murray's expense in Melbourne at the start of this year, he quite clinically defined the difference between the players. It was not a matter of ability but belief and, if Murray showed impressive improvement in Paris, his semi-final defeat to Nadal at Roland Garros underlined the old deficiency of the Scot.
It is one impossible to avoid now, despite the time-honoured national conviction that the start of Wimbledon is a time to leave realism in the lost property drawer at Southfields Tube station.
The potentially mislaid item on this occasion is the fact that in the two years since Murray squandered his most promising Wimbledon situation, with a passive betrayal of the best of his game against Andy Roddick, he is still to demonstrate that when the stakes are at their highest he can locate the vital reservoirs of self-confidence.
Murray still seems to believe that victory sometimes comes to those who are least prepared to make a mistake, who hope not so much to shape circumstances but exploit the right ones when they happen to emerge.
It is not, by and large, a characteristic of any of the great champions of sport.
Former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash has put it most bluntly in the build-up to Murray's latest challenge, saying: "If he sticks to his usual tactics it will prove to be disastrous against Nadal, Federer and Djokovic. How many times have we seen him go passive when the stakes are raised, seemingly lacking any cohesive game plan?"
Some may say Cash's assessment is excessively brutal at a point when the quality of Murray's play – and his mood – has risen so sharply out of the abyss which came after Djokovic's dismembering of his hopes in the Australian Open. But then Cash is Australian – and no sporting nation on earth has been less queasy about confronting the realities of top-level competition.
Cash's contention is surely beyond dispute. Murray is a brilliant talent, on quite another level from the gallant Tim Henman, who battled for so long and carried such hopes against his ultimate shortfall in major ability, but what is the good of a searing backhand, a series of lacerating passing shots and an often sublime touch, if they are so often left in the armoury rather than carried to the battlefield?
Yes, of course Murray can win Wimbledon. But not before finding his missing dimension. He is 24 now, hardly close to midnight it is true, but at the same age Djokovic has moved beyond him both in terms of consistent, record-breaking performance, and the most rigorous self-examination.
So how can we believe easily that Murray, as if by some newly discovered magic, can now produce those vital attributes which have so relentlessly gone missing at the most vital moments?
Has he performed, at a time in his career when Federer and Nadal had amassed between them a haul of 18 Grand Slam titles, some seamless transformation of his spirit?
Have the ratty protests against unjust fate suddenly given way to a sure and unbroken instinct for gaining the major success that will always be the yardstick for separating the great from the merely good?
There are, of course, wider and equally intriguing issues. Can Djokovic recover the certainties that deserted him in Paris? Is Nadal telling all when he says he is refreshed and restored after his weary subsidence at Queen's?
Is the sublime Federer, at 29, doing more than yodelling his fondest hopes when he says that he feels strong enough, confident enough, to win his 17th Grand Slam, five majors since his last success in Melbourne?
Positive answers to any of these questions could, whatever the buoyancy of the local hero, well prove decisive. For Murray, though, there is one imperative that has never been so pressing. He has to persuade himself that indeed it is time for him to play the tennis of his life, unfettered, optimistic, and, as such, worthy of the most serious support.
Short of this, it is surely more tears for the folks on the hill.
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