Lack of cutting criticism leaves Murray's season on a knife edge

Briton's tight-knit team may be hindering his progress as attention turns to grass
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The Independent Online

If Andy Murray sits down to analyse the reasons why he lost to Tomas Berdych here in the French Open on Sunday night, the Scot would do well to recall a moment when he screamed out halfway through the third set. "Just play tennis!", Murray urged himself. "Forget about everything else!"

Berdych, who won their fourth-round match in straight sets, was on such a hot streak that there might have been no stopping him, but Murray's pre-occupation with the difficult conditions – the court was wet, the balls heavy and the skies increasingly dark – clearly gave encouragement to his Czech opponent. During the 35-minute rain break midway through the second set the world No 17's coach told him that Murray "was looking like he doesn't want to play".

While Murray grimaced and complained to nobody in particular between points and to the umpire at changeovers, Berdych stayed focused on his task. It was a clear lesson in the dangers of letting negative body language give inspiration to your opponent. Murray did have some cause for complaint – the match was scheduled unnecessarily late in the day and better efforts could have been made to stop the court and balls from getting wet – but the conditions were the same for both men and plenty of other players have had to cope with similarly testing conditions over the last week.

Murray will know that he should not have let himself be distracted, but you wonder whether anyone in his camp will be emphasising that message. There is probably no tighter-knit entourage in tennis and Murray clearly feels at ease with the people around him, but does he have anyone in his travelling team who will underline some home truths to him?

Miles Maclagan, Murray's coach, has been assisted by Alex Corretja, a former world No 2, during the clay-court season. The Spaniard has played an increasingly important role in Team Murray, but questions have been raised about the wisdom of a player having two voices in his ear. Novak Djokovic recruited Todd Martin to work alongside Marian Vajda, his long-term coach, last year but it soon became clear that the arrangement was not working out and the American has now left.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to accentuate only the negatives of Murray's 2010 clay-court campaign. While defeat in the fourth round here was a disappointment, winning three matches maintained his remarkably consistent form at the highest level. Only Roger Federer can match his achievement in reaching the last 16 of the last eight Grand Slam tournaments.

The Scot did not play badly against Berdych and was unlucky that the rain break came during his best spell of the match. Clay, moreover, is his least productive surface and the French Open his biggest Grand Slam challenge; while Berdych has won two clay-court tournaments, Murray has never even reached a final on terre battue . Richard Gasquet and Juan Ignacio Chela, Murray's first two victims here, also have clay-court titles in their lockers.

Murray won six titles of his own last year (five on hard courts and one on grass) but, with the 2010 season nearly at the halfway stage, he has yet to get off the mark. Since reaching his second Grand Slam final at the Australian Open at the start of the year, the Scot has just one quarter-final appearance to show from his seven tournaments, in which he has played just 17 matches. Murray, understandably, wants to peak at the Grand Slam events, but he needs to find the right balance in his calendar.

In the wake of his defeat to Berdych, Murray admitted his form this year had been "very patchy", but pointed to the fact he had played one very good Grand Slam tournament and had done much better at another than his early clay-court form had suggested. He added: "These next few weeks will determine how the year's going to go."

Murray will practise on grass this week in readiness for the defence of his title at the Aegon Championships, which begin at Queen's Club in London on Monday. Wimbledon starts a fortnight later. If there is a blessing in disguise to Murray's defeat here, it is the fact that he will have time to ease himself into the grass-court season.

"I do look forward to playing on the grass," he said. "Obviously, I like the surface and you also spend time around your friends and family. You get to spend a lot of weeks without having to travel or fly anywhere. In a lot of ways it's a bit stressful, but it's relaxing in a lot of ways too."

Murray said he would take heart from his grass-court campaign last year, when he became the first Briton to win at Queen's for 71 years and then reached the semi-finals in his best run at Wimbledon, before losing to a rejuvenated Andy Roddick.

"I didn't lose a set at Queen's and was doing everything well," he said. "I feel like I'm hitting the ball well and I feel like I have confidence in my game again. I just need to make sure I take that to the grass and do a few things a little bit better. I lost last year to a guy who was playing arguably the best tennis of his life in the semis of Wimbledon and I still feel like I can improve, so I'll try to work on my game in the next week or so before Queen's."

Was he excited by the prospect of playing another Grand Slam tournament so soon? "Yes, I'm looking forward to it. I think I do have a chance of winning Wimbledon. I just need to play my best. I'll spend a lot of hours on the practice court making sure that my game is as good as it can be. I was hitting the ball well this week, I just need to make sure I adjust well to the grass and get a little bit stronger physically."