After a defeat as chastening as the first-round loss to Tomas Etcheverry, it is tempting to deconstruct Andy Murray’s game, seeking the technical flaws exploited by a worthy if workmanlike opponent.
Yet such enquiries might be better directed at Murray’s mindset. Because this result felt like a mental aberration as much as any issue with his tennis.
In the post-match press conference, Murray said: “It was really just a flat performance. I don’t know exactly why that was because I’ve been feeling good going in. Practised really well the last 10 days or so against the best players in the world.”
If we take him at his word, the next question is “What happened on the journey from the practice court to the Kia Arena?” Two theories suggest themselves.
The first is that Murray is trying so hard to avoid wild-haired tantrums, of the kind that saw him smash rackets repeatedly last season, that he wound up being too polite for his own good.
The second is that he works so exceptionally hard, sacrificing any semblance of ordinary life, that he feels enormous pressure when he goes on court. He needs big wins and deep runs in order to justify all that investment. But the harder he strives for such validation, the more elusive it becomes.
In all probability, both these factors play a part, although Murray only discussed the first one in the interview room. “I’ve always got frustrated, shown my emotions on the court,” he said. “There’s no question in the last 8-10 months it’s been affecting me in matches. [It’s] something that needs to be addressed.
“I was trying to stay a little bit calmer. I don’t know if that was a reason for me not playing well or not. Definitely, definitely a flat performance. Yeah, bizarre feeling on the court today.”
Telling break-point statistics
In his heyday, Murray was a “mentality monster”, to borrow Jurgen Klopp’s resonant phrase. When making his Wimbledon runs, he had a knack for serving aces when he needed them most. During Great Britain’s drive to the 2015 Davis Cup, he conjured victories from the most improbable positions.
Yet that edge has deserted him, as it tends to desert most ageing athletes. In fact, this decline can be tracked statistically, via the metric of “break point conversion”.
In his glory days, Murray would take around 45 per cent of these opportunities, often finding some flash of brilliance that left his fans open-mouthed in admiration. But his nerve is fading. His conversion rate hit a career low of 32 per cent last season, and the reason was all too obvious. At the biggest moments, he settled for simply placing the ball in court, and allowed his opponent to dictate.
Clearly, Murray’s mindset is not the only reason for his recent struggles. As Marin Cilic pointed out after their recent exhibition match at nearby Kooyong, he has lost the explosive movement that once carried him to “balls only one per cent of guys on the tour would get”.
But there is more to this malaise than physics and physicality. Murray must find a way to play freer. And to do that, he needs to stop worrying about the big questions: where his career is going, if he’s wasting his time, when would be the best time to quit.
Murray is too much of a competitor to regret the efforts he has put in over the last five years. But they surely colour his thinking. His main problem, one suspects, is that tennis now means too much.