John McEnroe on Andy Murray's Wimbledon defence: ‘This time round there will be less pressure on him’
The American knows all about successfully defending the title at SW19 and believes the Scot can repeat last year’s win – providing he is still hungry enough
There were times at the recent French Open when John McEnroe wondered whether Andy Murray still had the hunger to fight for the sport’s biggest prizes. The veteran American was watching Murray’s five-set marathon over Philipp Kohlschreiber in the third round at Roland Garros and was concerned when he saw the Scot making no secret of the fact that he was struggling physically.
“He was grabbing his leg and doing all this other stuff – 50 times, 100 times, whatever it was,” McEnroe said. “Then all of a sudden, at maybe 5-5 or 6-6 in the fifth set, he found something from within. He just started getting into it and pumping his fists. He seemed to get way more positive.
“I loved that. I was extremely pleased to see it. It was just like the pure joy of competition. He somehow got past that other stuff and got to what it was all about. It just seemed beautiful at that moment. He’s a better player than Kohlschreiber anyway, but I think that’s ultimately part of why he won that match. He battled himself and figured out a way to get through.”
McEnroe knows better than most what it takes both to conquer your inner demons and to remain competitive at the highest level. The 55-year-old American won the last of his seven Grand Slam titles when he was 25, though he competed at the top for another eight years. Many of the great players of the recent past peaked at a similar age. Bjorn Borg was only 25 when he played his last Grand Slam tournament and Mats Wilander did not win a Grand Slam title after the age of 24.
Murray, who returns to Wimbledon to defend his title next week, is already 27. Since ending Britain’s 77-year wait for a men’s singles champion at the All England Club last summer, he has also had to deal with plenty of adversity. He spent many months recovering from back surgery, parted company with Ivan Lendl, the coach who had finally seen him over the line in his race for Grand Slam glory, and only recently found a replacement in Amélie Mauresmo.
Asked whether he felt Murray still had the desire to succeed at the highest level, McEnroe said the Scot would have learned from the examples of 28-year-old Rafael Nadal and 32-year-old Roger Federer. “Murray’s been taught by these experts,” McEnroe said. “They just find something in the well. They want it more than you thought was even possible.”
He added: “You hit a wall at some stage when you don’t want it so bad, but you don’t know when that’s going to be. You don’t know when that will be as far as competition or as far as health is concerned. Sometimes it’s just natural. You just taste it and you want it so bad you find other gears.
“I won the US Open in 1979. When I lost to Borg at Wimbledon in 1980 I looked at this guy, who had won the title there five times in a row, and I thought: ‘How the hell does this guy want it so bad?’ It taught me something.”
McEnroe, who will again be part of the BBC’s commentary team at Wimbledon, won his first All England Club title in 1981. He lost to Jimmy Connors in the final the following year but won the title again in 1983 and 1984. Although he believes that staying at the top is generally harder than reaching the summit, he found winning a second Wimbledon title easier than first time around.
“Some of it depends on how old you are and what you have been through,” McEnroe said. “I am not going to say it will be easier for Andy to win it a second time but there will be less pressure overall.”
However, he added: “Andy had a pretty favourable draw last year. He may have a tougher one this time. It may be more difficult. No matter which way you slice it, it is pretty tough to win it.”
How did McEnroe think Murray would feel walking out at Wimbledon next Monday, when the defending men’s champion traditionally plays the first match on Centre Court? “There is always a feeling of an immense accomplishment,” McEnroe said. “You feel the tradition involved in coming out at that time.
“You have that brief moment of euphoria and then you have to accept the fact that now you have to go through the whole idea of possibly winning again. You also talk yourself into appreciating that you have the advantage because you are the guy who knows how to play there. You start to get into reality when you step on the court.”
McEnroe said he had been pleased for Murray when the British No 1 beat Novak Djokovic in last year’s final. “I felt like I went through a lot – though I admit a fair amount of it was self-inflicted – but I watched this poor guy year after year having to deal with what people were hoping he would do.
“I like Novak a lot. I think he’s great for tennis. I really believe that he tries more than any of the top guys off the court to try to make things happen and he’s trying to figure out ways to bring our sport up. But I was hoping Andy was going to win that. Novak’s already won six Grand Slam titles. He’s doing OK. For Andy to win Wimbledon was good for tennis.”
John McEnroe commentates for BBC TV at Wimbledon and presents 606 on Radio 5 live
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