Andy Murray talks hard work, physical improvement, and ‘the social dilemma’

Murray: “I’m not at the top of my game just now…But why, why should I stop?”

Andy Murray
Andy Murray (Photo: ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament)

It was a long, frank and revealing press conference that followed Andy Murray’s first tour win of 2021, covering the many physical and mental challenges he had faced—and was starting to overcome—in the last few years.

Few who saw it will forget another press conference, at the Australian Open two years ago, where he was reduced to tears at the prospect of possible retirement if he could not find a solution to his painful hip.

Shortly after, he underwent major surgery, and by Queen’s in June, he was playing well enough to win the doubles title with Feliciano Lopez. Indeed it was a press conference there that revealed a beaming, pain-free Murray, no longer grey, no longer with head bowed in his hands.

By the end of the year, he was making his move in singles, won a handful of matches in the Asian swing, and then picked up his first singles title in two and a half years in Antwerp. It was, needless to say, an emotional affair.

He was then hampered by a pelvic injury, and of course fell victim to the tennis tour’s suspension in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. He fitted in just seven matches for the season, but still pulled off a significant win over No7 seed Alexander Zverev at the ‘Cincinnati’ Masters, and survived a four-hour, 49-minute marathon in the first round of the US Open.

After a long off season in which to further build up his fitness, he was then hit by another blow: a positive Covid test just before his planned trip to Australia.

But he regrouped, headed indoors, reached the final of the Biella Challenger, though lost his opener in Montpellier. Then it was off to Rotterdam with a wild card, where he was champion in 2009, and a tough draw that included Robin Haase in his opener. He came through a real test to score his first main-tour win of 2021 in three sets and two and a half hours.

Not that the draw grows any easier: it earned him a second match over one of the form men on the tour, 23-year-old No4 seed Andrey Rublev. The Russian, 10 years Murray’s junior, and now on a 16-match-winning stretch at ATP500 level, is already 9-1 in 2021, up to 50-11 since the start of 2020.

Murray was, of course, first asked about his physical shape after his opening test. And it was clear that he is very positive on that front.

“Last few weeks I’ve practised well, and tonight’s match can help a lot… To get through it is a good effort, played some good stuff at the end. But the tennis needs to improve. I played some really good stuff in practice, been extremely competitive in all of the practices with top players, then it’s been a bit of a struggle since I had the break with the Covid…

“I know physically I’m in a better place than I was at the end of 2019. When I finished in Antwerp, I felt good physically, but the next time I got on the court I had an issue with my groin. So physically [now] I feel good, but you don’t know what’s round the corner.”

But after talking about his Haase match, Murray turned his thoughts to a battle on a different front, the pressure from every direction to ‘prove’ himself.

“Every time I lose a match, I’m getting told to retire, that I should stop playing, that I’m finished and got nothing left, that it’s sad, and all these things. It’s not easy.

“Feels like I’m playing for my career just now, each time I step on court, which is a motivation in some ways, but it’s also like it adds a bit of extra stress, extra doubt. And on top of that, I’m playing with a metal hip, which is hard. Trust me, it’s not easy.

“So it’s a big challenge for me just now, and one I will meet head on, but it’s not easy and the last few months have been a bit of a struggle. I wanna play, and win, and play well, and it’s tricky.”

Of course, regaining fitness after surgery is a gradual, sometimes long process, a process that in Murray’s case, was interrupted by things out of his control.

“I look at the last three or four years, it’s been unbelievably bitty, I’ve had so few opportunities to just compete for a continual period of time, and after what happened at the beginning of the year, it was tough. Maybe mentally was harder than I thought and affected a lot of my practices—extremely flat in practice, and that doesn’t help when going into matches. You need to be on point.”

Meanwhile, the negativity he sensed from outside the tennis court ate into the Murray conscience, which brought about an interesting change in his non-playing habits.

“I don’t have Twitter on my phone, and I deleted Instagram last week… You see those [negative] things on social media if you’re on it, but a while ago I watched that Social Dilemma movie, I thought it was brilliant. And then a couple of days after my match last week, I watched an interview with the people who were responsible for making it, and I was like, ‘I’m done’, and deleted that off my phone.”

He was keen, too, to put the counter-argument to the retirement debate:

“Since I came back and started playing with the metal hip, I beat some pretty good players. I beat Stan [Wawrinka], beat [Matteo] Berrettini, beat Zverev, served for the match against [Fabio] Fognini—these are top players that I was competing well against and physically now I’m in a better place than I was then. [So] why should I stop because I lost a match last week against someone that people expected me to win against.

“Everyone out there can play, and I’m not on the top of my game just now… But why, why should I stop? Tell me a good reason for why I should stop playing. I can still compete with the best players in the world with one hip and think that’s quite amusing.

“I don’t need to prove it, I’ve done it. I know I can play at that level. I need to do it consistently and physically stay fit for a period of time, and if I can do that, my skill hasn’t changed. You can ask the guys that I’m practising with.”

He smiled: “Unless all of them are just holding back in practice and feel sorry for me.

“If physically I was struggling I’d be really disappointed and flat about it. But my tennis will get better.”

It was bullish talk, though delivered in the down-beat style that is so familiar to Murray’s supporters. He did not, though, hold back about the quality of his next young opponent, Rublev.

“I played him when he was very young at the Australian Open [Rublev was still 19 years old]. He went for it, hit the ball big back then. Physically was not that strong then but he’s worked hard on that side of things. He’s always practising. I’ve practised a few times and from the first ball… goes full power. That’s how he plays his matches, and it’s got him lots and lots of success.

“I think the next step is just learning to tone it down at times in matches, but it’s difficult when you play a certain way that’s got you to the top of the game and into the top 10 at a young age. He’ll be at the top for a long time, because he’s got a great work ethic and he’s a very good player.”

Even if Murray does not beat the world No8, as long as he still feels 100 percent physically, he will be confident that more match-play will sharpen the tennis—and maybe silence the critics. Watch out for a few more wild cards for Murray in the coming weeks.

The Netflix programme that so impressed Murray was The Social Dilemma: Filmmaker and Tech Experts in Conversation with Katie Couric

And yes, it is an eye-opener to the power and politics of social media.

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