The description "student of the game" is applied loosely to men and women across a range of sports, but not many athletes can match the academic approach of Mikhail Youzhny, the man attempting to thwart Andy Murray's bid to reach the quarter-finals for the sixth year in succession here this afternoon. The 31-year-old Russian graduated from a Moscow university with a philosophy degree two years ago and wrote his thesis on professional tennis.
"I wrote it slowly when I had the time," Youzhny said after booking his place in the fourth round here by beating Serbia's Viktor Troicki. "You find out about other players and try to compare them with you. You look at what you have to do against them or what changes they may make before their matches or during your match with them.
"It was quite interesting to analyse not only your own matches but also other players' matches against other players. You see one here plays like this and then in another game he plays a different way. It's like chess."
Had Youzhny's studies helped his own game? "Of course. It is very helpful, though in tennis everything changes a lot. Even if you played someone one month ago he will never play the same way again because he will also try to change something. But it is interesting to see what he has changed and what you have changed and how things go, what helps you, what doesn't help you, what he is doing different and what you are doing different.
"It's a lot of work, it's a lot of analysis, but I think it's really interesting for coaches and people who want to learn about tennis. Small things make a big difference, but at this level small differences can have really big power. If you can find a small difference then it is really nice.
"Even top players like Roger Federer are still trying to improve. He is still trying to change his game. To watch him and try to understand what he is doing is really interesting."
Among the players Youzhny has studied is his opponent this afternoon. "It was a long time ago and I haven't looked at him at this Wimbledon so far, but I know how he plays, what he has changed, and it is really interesting what a new coach can bring to him," Youzhny said. "But I am not ready to talk about all of this right now – not before the match!"
A conclusion Youzhny might have reached about his own game is that he has never quite realised the potential he showed in arguably the most famous moment of his career. In the Davis Cup final 11 years ago Youzhny came back from two-sets down in the deciding rubber against France's Paul-Henri Mathieu to clinch the trophy for Russia. He has enjoyed a good career since, winning eight titles and reaching No 8 in the world rankings, but given his exceptional talent he might have achieved more. His best Grand Slam performance was in reaching the semi-finals of the 2010 US Open before losing to Rafael Nadal.
Now the world No 26, he will be the highest-ranked opponent Murray has met here this year. The world No 22, Jerzy Janowicz, who is a potential semi-final opponent, is the highest-ranked player Murray can meet before the final following the departures of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal from the Scot's half of the draw.
Nevertheless, Murray's coach, Ivan Lendl, dismisses talk of any easy passage for the world No 2. "I would not call Andy's draw by any means open," Lendl said. "Both Rafa and Roger lost, but they didn't lose because the other guys can't play; they lost because the other guys played very well. And you can see how closely they are tagged in the next round.
"It's like in golf. Someone shoots a 62 and they don't often follow it with a 64. There's more requirements on the guys who beat the top guys and attention they are not used to. A lot of times they don't make it through the next match. It has happened and those players are good players. You definitely cannot relax. It has happened and it will happen somewhere again." Murray, who practised again yesterday with the British teenager Kyle Edmund, has not lost a set in his first three matches and played his best match so far when he beat Tommy Robredo on Friday.
"I think he is hitting the ball extremely well," Lendl said. "He is moving very well and when you move well, you hit the ball well. That is the key to make the movement stay, so you get into a position where you can hit a good ball. That's where it all starts."
Does Lendl think that Murray, having won his first Grand Slam title at last year's US Open, is in a more relaxed frame of mind than he was 12 months ago? "I haven't thought about it," Lendl said. "The goal is still the same as last year, to try to win it, do the best you can.
"The chips fall where they fall, but the goal is not to make the semis, not the final. The goal is to win it. I'm more concerned with what shots he's hitting right, what he's not hitting right, keeping the things he's doing well going and let's try to improve the things he could do better and that give him the best chance of winning. That is my mission. One point at a time, that's the idea."
GB Two: the last time
Thanks to Andy Murray and Laura Robson, Britain has both a man and a woman through to the second week of Wimbledon for the first time for 15 years.
In 1998 Tim Henman and Sam Smith reached the fourth round. Smith beat Conchita Martinez, the world No 7, in the third round before losing to Nathalie Tauziat, the world No 15. Henman went on to reach the semi-finals, where he lost to the eventual champion, Pete Sampras.
In 2002 Britain had two men in the last 16 but no women. Greg Rusedski beat Andy Roddick in the third round before losing to Xavier Malisse, while Henman lost in the semi-finals to Lleyton Hewitt.Reuse content