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Murray, Mauresmo, Joy, and the Terre Battue


There is a section of dialogue in a Jeanette Winterson novel which never fails to make me think of Andy Murray. Two people – not yet lovers – walk across a bridge in Paris, talking, working each other out; there are complications, subtleties, frustrations, expectations and simple things that become unnecessary battles:

     "You can be so subtle you just tie yourself up in knots."

     "You can be so simple you just go nine rounds with yourself."  (The PowerBook, 2000)

Murray might well appreciate the boxing metaphor, but these two lines have always called to my mind the complexities - and sometimes the failings - of Britain's best modern tennis player. In the pursuit of on-court perfection Murray has not always been kind to himself - mistakes have seen him verbally chastise himself frequently, and on some occasions even physically – but mistakes happen; there are no failsafes in tennis.

It strikes me as I write this that those two lines could apply as much to Murray as his coach, Amelie Mauresmo, who played beautiful, variety filled, attacking, and intelligent tennis. While both Murray and Mauresmo know that variety and intelligence are weapons on the court, they know too that there are times when these things can prove a hindrance – over think a shot and misjudge it at your peril.

When he appointed Mauresmo, Murray noted various things about the former Wimbledon and Australian Open champion and her game: variety was a key factor. Not merely that she had variety at her disposal but that she knows how to use it; how to turn it into attack; how to win important points with it; she knows too the pitfalls. Towards the end of her ‘career year’ in 2006 Mauresmo described the dilemma of variety and shot selection thus:

"When you have a choice you have to make the right one. When you don't have a choice you do what you know how to do best and that's about it. When you have a repertoire - for this ball a chip down the line? Or a top spin short across the court? - there's a chance that you'll make the wrong decision." (Observer, 26 November 2006)

Murray, like Mauresmo, has a repertoire – it seemed though as if that range had gone a little astray and he wanted it back. Last autumn at the Paris Masters she echoed her 2006 comments when responding to a question about whether she and Murray would be working on increasing his all-court play and honing his net skills, she responded:

“I think he has the ability to do it probably a little more often than he does, but it’s not an easy process […] I think it’s also not a fast one. I know that. I think we’re both looking towards that. You can’t do everything at once. He needed some confidence back. He needed many things before getting to this part of the work. Really, other priorities were there before this specific area of his game […] It’s all a matter of balance. Sometimes he won’t have any choice but to do that [counter-attack and defend]. But he will also have moments where there could be other options. The thing in this sport, when you’re like Andy and you can do many different things, is to choose the right shot at the right time. That’s not easy to do. He’s looking for that. He’s trying to have perfect shot selection. But it’s not easy.” (Independent, 6 November 2014)

Going nine rounds with yourself and tying yourself up in knots are, if not essentially the same thing, then two sides of the same coin: characterised, perhaps, as Murray’s external boxing with himself on one side, Mauresmo’s internal knot tying on the other; and the reverse of that as well – on court they have shown themselves to be equally capable of tying themselves into knots and going nine rounds with themselves, it has just manifested itself rather differently.

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Following Murray’s triumph at the Madrid Masters, the sports writer Oliver Brown described the Murray-Mauresmo partnership as "not merely a meeting of minds, but a fusion of shared past experience" (Telegraph, 13 May 2015). Both have overcome the adversities which have littered their respective careers – whether injury, personal and professional losses, or emotional fragility – with sheer hard work and determination to hone their talents, and no small amount of love for their sport.

‘The first thing is joy’

Cast your mind back to the French Open last year. The subject of who would be appointed as Murray’s next coach after the departure of Ivan Lendl a little more than two months before was the talk of the tournament. Speculation was rife. On court interviews in Paris reached comic proportions. Everybody who was anybody in tennis was thought to be in the running, everybody who was anybody secretly wanted and hoped for the job: everybody except the person who ultimately got offered it.

Murray wouldn’t be drawn, but there were clues along the way: he was definitely considering a female coach, he wanted someone he could talk to, someone who would listen, communicate, collaborate, guide him; he wanted calmness and a lack of ego. He was done with egos and arguments. There was that Fantasy Football team line-up.

When Mauresmo’s appointment was announced everybody who was anybody declared themselves surprised; some thought it was a joke; everybody who was anybody wondered about locker room access; and everybody who was anybody was left smarting that they didn’t get the call.

Everybody who was anybody clearly hadn’t been paying any attention to a single word Murray had been saying during the months of speculation and questioning. If they had they would not have been half as surprised as they said they were.

After all, here was the woman who had calmly, but passionately, captained the French Fed Cup team back into the World Group after everybody said it was impossible. This was the coach who’d calmly, but surely, guided one of the most idiosyncratic characters in tennis to the Ladies’ Singles title at Wimbledon the previous year.

The expectation had been that Murray would seek a coach of the same mould as Lendl. What the player himself had come to realise was that he needed something different; he needed a coaching partnership built on communication and collaboration. So Murray cast about for a coach with different methods, a person forged from different material altogether.

In Mauresmo he identified a former champion player who had played with the flair, variety and finesse Murray desired in his own game. Last month in a mini-documentary on their partnership, broadcast as part of the French sport magazine show Sport Confidentiel, Mauresmo explained that when they originally discussed a potential collaboration everything Murray believed she could intervene and help him with 'spoke' to her.

Here was a player who had, like him, experienced the exhilarating highs and devastating lows of the sport, someone who had gone through a crisis similar to what he was experiencing at the time. Someone who was softly spoken, intelligent, deeply private, calm and low key in her approach to the work, but not short on determination and stubbornness, who possessed an exacting work ethic, who liked – above all – a challenge.
Challenging it would be: six months of challenge and scrutiny before any significant work on his game and preparation could be started. Six months of everybody who was anybody in tennis declaring her to be wrong for the job, but unable to articulate exactly why as they stumbled over essentially meaningless phrases such as ‘bringing things to the table’; they pointed to what they viewed as the 'mental fragility' she experienced during her career; they suggested she was not ‘up to’ him or could not ‘control’ him. Mauresmo was not, in short, a dictator.

Not a soft touch either though, as Marion Bartoli reminded the British press on Sky coverage of the US Open. Emilie Loit - Mauresmo's friend since they both attended the French National Tennis Centre as children - describes Murray's coach as "a perfectionist, ambitious, thoughtful and very competitive" (L'Equipe, 15 April 2015). Murray for his part viewed Mauresmo's struggles as a player not as a weakness but as a positive; she had come through all of this, had become the best player in the world, and had won.

While those who fumbled over snide, vague, disparaging, statements about Mauresmo's work with Britain's top player wish to claim they are not sexist, the subtext to all this was indeed sexism. It may not have been specific or direct, but sexism does not have to explicit for it to exist. This was the subtle, everyday, sexism of a word here, a phrase there; a commentator who paused to a fraction to long before responding to questions about her role as Murray’s coach; it was the former Grand Slam champion who was unable to fathom why Murray had appointed Mauresmo.  

Before all that, however, there was a conversation in the peace of Wimbledon’s Centre Court the day before the 2014 tournament began. The ‘Temple of Tennis’ Mauresmo once called it. The defending champion – Britain’s first for seventy-seven years – wanted to know what it would feel like walking out on court for his first match. Mauresmo – who had herself made that walk seven years earlier – talked to him about the emotions he would feel when walking out on court: the first thing, she said, was joy.  

Mauresmo's introduction to tennis is fairly well catalogued, but sport has selective memory and such illustrative anecdotes seem all too swiftly forgotten. Thirty days shy of her fourth birthday Mauresmo sat and watched the 1983 French Open Men’s Final with her parents; she would later explain that her overriding memories of it were going into the garden after the final and mirroring the shots she had seen – a tennis racquet was later bought – and witnessing the joy of the winner Yannick Noah and wanting to feel those emotions herself.

Joy then was the foundation upon which Mauresmo’s relationship with tennis was built. She played with a joy in tennis rarely seen today. One of my most distinct tennis memories comes from her 2005 Wimbledon semi-final against Lindsay Davenport. In the latter part of the second set she was waiting to receive serve when the camera cut away from Davenport to Mauresmo just in time to catch a smile spread across her face: it was clear to anyone watching just how much she relished her time on those courts and it was her passion for her sport that carried her through the highs and lows of her career.

For anyone still confused, this is what Mauresmo has to offer Murray: aside from her renowned variety, subtle artistry, her serve-and-volley, her excellent net play, the overhead smashes that rarely missed their mark, the attacking play, the fluid movement around the court, and the determination to go after perfection, Mauresmo offers a perspective on the game which has the capacity to awaken joy in Murray's creative and intellectual expression in his game.

Some of that expression was seen in Miami, particularly his semi-final against the unsubtle Berdych, after which one journalist sought to invent new names in his match report for the type of shots Murray was hitting. More still was seen in wins over Nishikori and Nadal in Madrid – where both players were undone by the variety and weight of shot coming off Murray’s racquet.  

Others may want to talk about aggression and ruthlessness. This raises its own questions though, and one which Murray himself has been asking. What are we really talking about when we talk about aggression in tennis?

Speaking to Sport Magazine before the Australian Open this was a question the Scotsman raised:

“There are a bunch of different ways to play aggressively. Does it mean playing closer to the baseline? Does it mean returning closer to the baseline, or trying to hit more winners on the return? Does it mean trying to shorten points and hit more winners from the back of the court? Hitting the ball harder? Serve and volleying? I am playing more aggressively, but I don’t think everyone knows what that actually means." (Sport Magazine, 15 January 2015)

From an outsider’s perspective it felt as if Murray had in the off-season, perhaps for the first time in his professional career, been given the opportunity to really unpack this question and work out how to apply it. Confidence he noted was also a factor in this style of play – with confidence he can adapt, create, and attack, just as we have seen in recent weeks.

Where there is the joy of playing, and winning with, creative, variety filled tennis, there is also joy away from the court. Throughout her career Mauresmo was driven, even obsessed with making herself be the best she could, but was also keenly aware of life and interests beyond tennis – tennis alone some said was not enough for her – an understanding that has slowly crept into Murray’s own outlook in recent months.

When asked by the press what he considered success to be after his final loss at the Australian Open he replied defiantly: "Success is being happy". Which is not to say that the driving obsession to succeed is diminished, but that it is balanced, tempered by an understanding not only that there are actually more important things than tennis, but also that it is acceptable to think that way.

They deserve their moments of joy away from the courts. Not because of the sacrifices they have made to be the best they can be in tennis, but because this is what we all deserve. Tennis is an individual sport, matches an adventure in solitude. Life on the tour can be lonely, anonymous, and dislocating: moments of happiness may well be all the more special for it.

In one of five essays he wrote on tennis the writer David Foster Wallace noted in ‘The String Theory’ – written during the 1995 Canadian Open and published in Esquire the following year – that the tennis players congregated in a hotel lobby awaiting results and draw sheets all had:

“the unhappy and self-enclosed look of people who spend huge amounts of time on planes and in hotel lobbies, waiting around – the look of people who must create an envelope of privacy around themselves with just their expressions.” (Esquire, July 1996)

Fifteen years on from that and the world of tennis and its relationship with the media has become even more public, even more intrusive, even more judgemental.  Both Murray and Mauresmo have experienced the often painful, never forgiving, scrutiny and harsh criticism of this world. Murray, Mauresmo told French press earlier this month, had been exposed to this from a very young age "in a country where everything is analysed and scrutinised". Subsequently he sought to "protect himself" to put a "Barrier, a distance" between himself and those who viewed his career under a microscope. (L’Equipe, 11 May 2015)  

The off-season at the end of 2014 was a time of extensive hard work with a focus on the future. Not only professional futures, personal ones as well. The off-season was also a time of private joy: Murray got engaged, Mauresmo became pregnant.

When Mauresmo announced shortly before departing for the Fed Cup tie in Ostrava in April that she is expecting the arrival of a baby in August there was – somewhat depressingly – thinly disguised glee in some quarters of the press as they contemplated the idea that Mauresmo may no longer coach Murray.

This was mere assumption, based on misjudgements and a lack of understanding. Indications are that after taking a break once Wimbledon ends Mauresmo will be back at Murray’s side as soon as early November. Unsurprisingly, the collective minds of ‘Team Murray’ have more imagination, and more openness, in this instance than the journalistic dinosaurs that occupy the tennis correspondent positions in the British press.

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If Murray has spent a decade or more berating himself and tying himself into knots, then now he is taking the time to stop going nine rounds with himself and to start unpicking the knots. As players of creative, intelligent, tennis, Murray and Mauresmo might well find an intrinsic, basic, intellectual joy – a jouissance if you will – in working things out, in unravelling those problematic knots.

The Terre Battue

If one such knot in Murray’s career has been his performances on clay over the years, it might have recently been untangled. Murray’s 2015 season on the terre battue has got off to a career high start, with his first clay court title in Munich swiftly followed by his second at the Madrid Masters the next week. While they might be career firsts these wins on the clay courts have not come out of nowhere. Murray has had, arguably, the best start to any year in his professional year, reaching the semi-finals or better of every mandatory tournament he has entered (Australian Open: Final; Indian Wells: Semi-final; Miami: Final; Madrid: Win).

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Following the Madrid final, Mauresmo pointed out to the French sports paper L’Equipe that this is all part of the upward trajectory Murray began in Shenzhen last year. Back then he needed to win a tournament for the sake of winning, for the confidence it would help to rebuild, and any tournament would do. That scrappy, hard fought win was backed up with equally hard fought triumphs in Vienna and Valencia. For Mauresmo the successes of her player’s 2015 season-to-date have their origins in those wins: they catapulted him back into the top ten, and set him on a path of reconfiguration which has seen him reach four finals so far this year and win two of those.

When goals for the 2015 season were set down in discussion with his team during the off-season a clay court title was a key objective. The ATP 250 tournament in Munich was targeted as the place to achieve this, and despite some difficult scheduling caused by inclement weather Murray did indeed win there. That and the more important win over Nadal in Madrid are the results of an immense volume of hard work.

Eschewing a spring honeymoon after his wedding, Murray went to Barcelona for a ten-day training block coinciding with the ATP 500 tournament held in the city and thus ensuring that high quality sparring partners would be available to practice with daily. Joined for the initial few days by Colin Beecher, Murray was then joined by Mauresmo and new second coach Jonas Bjorkman, who had fulfilled commitments to France’s Fed Cup team and Sweden’s Let’s Dance respectively.

Bjorkman was there for a couple of days only, with the main intention that he would get to see how the team operated before having to return to Sweden for the dancing show’s finale. Mauresmo stayed with the rest of the team until the training block ended and Murray travelled to Munich, where he linked up with Bjorkman again, and was then reunited with Mauresmo in Madrid.

It is the work done with his team, under Mauresmo’s guidance, which Murray has credited with his clay success this year. Significant changes were made during the off-season to the way he trains, recovers and manages his body; Murray thanked his team for being brave enough to make these changes, and the celebration he shared with Mauresmo after he ran over to his players’ box in Madrid spoke volumes as to her role in motivating and overseeing these changes.

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Munich saw some interesting statistical changes in Murray’s serve and return: the first serve showed definite improvements, with an impressive 17 aces being fired down in the final alone. The second serve remained vulnerable in some matches, but showed signs of a greater, if inconsistent, kick. Oddly though Munich showed a dip in Murray’s usually strong return statistics – only by a couple of percent, but a couple of percent can prove to be extremely significant in the upper echelons of the sport.

In Madrid, though, something really interesting happened. Murray’s serve began to reach season high percentages, and even when his first serve percentage was low, he was winning a huge percentage of the points on serve. Not only that he was being tremendously ‘clutch’ on break points – saving 100% of break points in three out of five matches – a failure which has been plaguing him for much of the season so far.

During the Madrid final Murray won an extraordinary 80% of second serve points. The second serve was kicking, and kicking high. On other occasions the British number one served intelligently, mixing things up with body serves, and his serve out wide working well to push his opponents into awkward positions on the court. Not only that Murray was backing it up with controlled, varied, attacking shots.

A look at Murray’s serve statistics on clay over the years provides a very clear illustration that he enters the French Open not only with an undefeated run of ten match wins on the surface, but a functional, dare I say even reliable serve on clay for, perhaps, the first time in his career.

The below table shows Murray’s career serve stats and compares 2015 with two previous years on clay – 2011 and 2014 – in which Murray’s results on clay were generally higher than normal and included semi-finals at Roland Garros. In every respect Murray’s serve is significantly higher than before on clay.

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If Munich saw a dip in return statistics then Madrid saw these return to a more familiar level. Murray has been particularly forthright in attacking second serves. This is something which has been happening all year with improvements showing with each passing tournament, and his aggression on second serve returns was notable in his Miami semi-final against Berdych.

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Madrid also saw Murray return 100% of second serves inside the baseline. That tactic was rewarded with 7 double faults throughout the tournament, and paid dividends as he swatted away – especially on the backhand side – second serve after second serve with return winners.

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Murray is one of two men who enter the French Open with an unbeaten record on clay in 2015. The other is world number one Novak Djokovic. Both men have played and won ten matches on the surface. Both men have won two titles. They have not played each other on clay this year, and in fact have only ever played on clay twice, as they have on grass, with the overwhelming majority of their matches taking place on hard courts - and for the most part slow hard courts.  

The two tables below compare the serve and return statistics for both players. The Serb has played one more set on clay than the world number three. There is very little between them. The Scotsman’s serve may be one percent behind in key statistics, but he has served 18 more aces, and though he has faced more break points, he has saved 7% more break points on average. Neither has faced a returner of the other’s calibre on clay this year.

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As far as return statistics go on the surface, things are closer still, with Murray outclassing Djokovic in second serve return percentages and break point conversion. The Serb’s additional one percent on return games won is arguably explained by the additional set he has played. They are equal on first serve returns.

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Djokovic is the undisputed favourite for the Roland Garros title, and there is no doubt that he wants it desperately. The British number one’s improved form on clay, however, gives good reason to think Murray can at least back-up the ragged, scrappy, performances which saw him reach the semi-final there in 2014.

Will the King of Clay Rafa Nadal find his form on Philippe Chatrier where he has won nine previous titles? Is Roger Federer actually a threat in physical best of five matches after his flat performance in Australia? Then there are players like Kei Nishikori, Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer, Stan Wawrinka, Gael Monfils - to name but a few - who could shake things up.

On the one hand this year’s French Open seems predictable – Djokovic, the Crown Prince of Clay, is on a twenty-two match-winning streak, can/will anyone stop him winning another seven? It seems La Coupe des Mousquetaires is his to lose. Or is it?

On the other hand the King will fight to keep his crown. Is Murray the real deal on clay or just a Pretender? Will a player unexpectedly emerge from the draw and snatch the cup from their hands, just as Wawrinka and Cilic did in Melbourne and New York in 2014?

Who knows?

What is clear is that Murray is keeping his head. While some are naming him as a ‘favourite’ behind Djokovic and Nadal for the tournament, both Murray and his coach have pointed towards the different conditions in Paris to Munich and Madrid; both have mentioned that Nadal has still got time to find his form, his feet, his forehand. While the Scot played one match and had three practice sessions at sea-level in Rome to prepare for the different conditions in Paris, the world number three won’t be declaring himself a favourite.

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Nonetheless, the wins on clay and the work he has done should bolster his belief in his game and his faith in his body. After a short rest at home Murray got to Paris early this week and has so far had practice sessions on both the main courts at Roland Garros. In the quiet before the storm Murray and his team have been working hard, relaxed but focused, leaving no stone unturned in his pursuit of clay perfection.

[ Last edit by amongsttheleaves May 22, 2015, 10:23 pm ] IP Logged

Thanks ATL for a great article. It really drives home the improvements Andy has made to his technical game as well as the new found joy and confidence.

I am very hopeful that this year Andy will lift a GS of some sort, especially at Wimbledon and/or USO, maybe even at RG. Sky is the limit as they say Smile
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Brilliant ATL. I really enjoyed reading it and it was great to see how Amelie has proved to be the best Coach for Andy.What a wise young man he is. I have a gut feeling that Andy given a fair draw can lift the Trophy in Paris. It will I'm sorry to say give me great pleasure to see Novak denied what he craves. There is something underhand and unlikable about Novak, and he certainly needs to be brought down. I think the look on Andy's face when they met yesterday at practice said it all.
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I really enjoyed reading that atl. Especially the in depth info about Amelie. wub
Thank you.  clap
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Thaks for this great article. there is a lot of stuff written and said about the Murray-Mauresmo partnership, this is one of the mots interesting and well analysed article I have read.
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Great work, leafie. clap

Love the pics and the stats. Now, that's what I call research!

Your respect for Amelie and her partnership with Andy shines through.

I used to watch a lot more WTA back when she was playing. Loved watching her, Justine Henin, Jennifer Capriati, Kim Clijsters..
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Great article. Well researched and expressed, ATL. Many thanks
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Great article, much appreciated and a thoroughly enjoyable read Smile I have this sneaking suspicion that this French open is going to be something special for Andy. For him to beat deprive Djokovic in the one tournament he really craves will be a fantastic story for all Murray fans. A lot of tennis has to be played before then though, let the games begin Smile
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great stuff.  To the gnome  I'm dreaming too and hoping for the reality.
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Really good article. Well written and researched. Hope Andy reads it to increase his confidence.
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That was a joy to read atl , thank you .
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Many thanks for such a painstakingly researched and heart-felt article ATL.  Like @blueberryhill I really appreciate your in-depth information about Amelie and also her relationship with Andy.  I hope that many more people will read it and that the myth that Amelie 'ruined' Andy's game will finally be put to rest, and also that the realisation will at last dawn on them that she had the unenviable task of picking Andy up at what was a very low point in his career and slowly but surely guiding him back to where he rightfully belongs - in the top four players in the world.
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With Andy putting in the same effort into his preparation as you, atl into your very informative and passionate article, nothing can go wrong. I enjoyed the passages about Andy's flair that Amelie is trying to promote, a feature Andy has always liked about French players, and something I like about Andy's game as well.
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A quite excellent article Atl.  It should be essential reading for all British tennis commentators.
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cathie Kelly

They are good for each other, iIwas delighted when Andy chose Amelia
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