Sporting Life : Can Andy Murray break the British hex at Wimbledon?

Can Andy Murray break the British hex at Wimbledon?

By Lamont Russell

The strawberries, the strict dress code on court, the regal patronage…Wimbledon has long been steeped in tradition to an almost foolish degree, but change is not impossible. Since 2003 for instance, female players have no longer been required to curtsey in front of the Royal Box. This year, after decades of losing time and screwing up the schedule through rain delays, the guardians of Wimbledon tradition have finally seen sense, and installed a retractable roof over Centre Court.

One other grand old tradition seriously at risk this year is the custom of Brits losing badly in the men’s singles. In Scotland’s Andy Murray, the British finally have a chance of breaking a Wimbledon hoodoo that has endured since 1936, the year that Fred Perry last won the men’s singles title for Britain. In fact, anything short of winning the tournament will be counted as a resounding failure by the British press. Hey, no pressure, Andy.

Thankfully, Murray, now 22, does have a realistic chance of making his bid to become Rafael Nadal’s emerging opponent for the title of world’s best player. This year seems the right time for Murray to make that move. Rafael Nadal won his first slam at 19, Roger Federer was 21 when he did it, and Djokovic was 20.

On the other hand….if Murray loses in anything short of a five setter in the final, some hints of Tim Henmanism are going to start entering the frame. Four times a semi-finalist but never a winner, Henman became the byword for a peculiarly British form of national masochism. Add failure to Murray’s lapses of concentration against a rampant Fernando Gonzalez at the French Open, and Murray could start to get tarred with same under-achiever brush. Either way it goes then, Wimbledon 09 will be a watershed tournament for Murray.

Thankfully, Murray is already a far better player than Henman ever was. His own game is also better on every other surface than clay – so Murray will be reasonably happy to see the end of the clay court season at the French Open. Overall, that tournament was a positive run for Murray. He had wins against some good claycourters in Chela, Starace and Cilic before going down against the Chilean firebrand, Gonzalez. Prior to 2009, Murray had never survived beyond the third round at Roland Garros. This time, we went one better.

On his day – and on his favourite surfaces – Murray has shown he can beat Rafael Nadal. Leaving aside his straight sets thrashing at the hands of Roger Federer in last year’s US Open, Murray has consistently managed to beat Federer to the point where the all time career stats against the Swiss master are now running at 6:2 in Murray’s favour. Against Nadal, Murray is 2-7 down – which overall, is still a better record than Novak Djokovic, the man he displaced in May for the No 3 slot in the ATP rankings. Djokovic is down 4-7 against Federer, 4-13 down against Nadal and just ahead by 4 -3 against Murray. Significantly though, Murray has won his last three matches with the Serbian.

Nadal’s dominance on clay has forced his rivals into improving their own strength and endurance. The likes of Murray, Fernando Verdasco and Andy Roddick have all significantly lifted their fitness and strength over the past 18 months and with it, the quality of their games.

Touch wood, but Murray hasn’t so far this year been troubled by the right knee injury that dogged him early in 2008. As we all learned back then, Murray was born with a bipartite patella on his right knee. Meaning : his right kneecap is not joined by bone in a single unified mass, but is in two parts joined by muscle fibre. He is therefore susceptible to pain and injury, especially on clay – where the sliding into shots and the need to get down lower to play shots takes its toll. Luckily for Murray, the right knee is the suspect one, so there isn’t quite as much pressure on it when serving, where the left leg takes most of the strain.

Can Murray really take out the title at Wimbledon ? In the end, it could come down to a simple matter of mental toughness – which was suspect at the French Open, and has been on other occasions when he goes much beyond three sets. Generally, his success against Federer in particular has been built on the variety that Murray brings to bear – and among other things, his changes of pace and placement helps to disguise the relative weakness of his second serve, which is one of the few flaws in his game. Plus, he has a lethal backhand slice – a particularly telling weapon against Federer last year – and his two handed back-hand down the line is one of the finest on the current tour.

For all that….and despite the pressure from the British media, IMHO Murray won’t win at Wimbledon this year. I’m picking his first Slam will come later in the year, on the hard court surface at the US Open. – by Lamont Russell.

Lamont Russell is a writer based in Wellington