On an indoor court at the National Tennis Centre, the eminent doubles coach Louis Cayer is hitting balls at Jamie Murray from close range. Very close range. If you tried this with your average park player, they would sustain enough bruises to make a join-the-dots puzzle.
Yet Murray needs no body armour. His uncanny reactions send each ball rebounding perfectly into play. “I call this ‘stealing’,” Cayer tells a small audience of open-mouthed juniors. “I want him to be clinical at the net, great offence, finish the point, but also steal points with his reflexes.”
It would be easy to take Murray’s mastery for granted. He is only a doubles player, after all, and the professional game still treats doubles as a second-class format. He is also far less rich and famous than his younger brother, Andy.
This week, though, Murray is the only Briton among the 24 invitees to Sunday’s Nitto ATP Finals. Last year he and his partner, Bruno Soares, reached the semi-finals at the O2 Arena to seal their position as the top doubles pairing of 2016. Not bad for a man whose tennis career was in danger of fizzling out in his early 20s, until his mother Judy recommended giving up singles.
The Murray we see today has little in common with the lost soul Cayer met 11 years ago, after Judy had asked him to take a look at her elder son’s game. As she writes in her autobiography: “He came back … with an amazing number of observations. He seemed to have noticed so many things about Jamie’s game that I hadn’t.” Cayer recalls his first meeting with Murray, when he asked about his goals. “He said he wanted to play the grand slams and to be in the top 100,” he says. “I said, ‘OK, it is good for me to know that you don’t know much. Top 100 in singles makes slams, in doubles you have to be top 70’. “I am tough on my players at the beginning. I want to see if they strive to be the best they can be, if they are keen, if they are courageous. I squeeze them to see what juice comes out.
“After a few weeks, I say to my wife, ‘He has a lot to learn, but I think he will learn it fast. He is competitive and he is a winner’.” Their working relationship would fit perfectly into one of those movie training montages. The eager young cadet and the grizzled sergeant-major, who would turn up for practice with a couple of long ropes. “I was just another foreigner coming in,” Cayer recalls, “so I supported everything I did with clips and stats and teaching aids.
“I worked with both brothers and I remember Andy saying, ‘You must be joking’ when I told him not to cross the middle of the court when poaching at the net. That’s when I would get the rope out, to show the path of the ball so he could see it and feel it.” The penny dropped. As it would for a whole generation of British doubles specialists, once the Lawn Tennis Association had asked Cayer to take on a wider brief.
“Louis has been huge for me,” says Murray, during a breather from close-range drills. “I wouldn’t have achieved what I have if I hadn’t met him or worked with him. When I started, we didn’t have any doubles players in the top 100. By three or four years ago, we had eight in the top 60.”
Compare Jamie with his younger brother and they share little except height and red-brown hair.
Jamie is light-hearted and flippant, an antidote to Andy’s frowning intensity.
He is also skinny and gangly, a greyhound placed alongside a rottweiler. It’s a good thing they no longer simulate wrestling bouts, as they used to in their bedrooms 20 years ago, because the contest would be one-sided. The same would be true if they went head-to-head on the singles court. “The lateral movement of singles is a killer,” says Cayer. “Andy can run side-to-side for five hours, and Jamie is not able to do that.”
But when it comes to deft racket-work, the elder Murray has a rare gift. During Great Britain’s triumphant Davis Cup run in 2015, it was often Jamie who carried his brother through epic doubles rubbers against France, Australia and Belgium.
“You watch Bruno and Jamie play and maybe Bruno looks more spectacular because he can hit hard,” says Cayer. “Jamie doesn’t hit hard, but he has his chip, his angle, his lob.
“People say, ‘Oh, I always play bad when I play Jamie’. Why do you play bad? Because he moves a lot, he mixes his shots, so you are in a state of uncertainty.”
Murray is open-minded when it comes to refining his game, and has made recent technical adjustments to several key strokes. Yet one peculiarity remains: his reluctance to hit a classic top-spin forehand. This dates back childhood, when he left home at 13 for an unhappy spell at an LTA-run tennis school in Cambridge. Judy wrote: “The coach… made some changes to Jamie’s forehand in the first couple of weeks which were completely destabilising.”
Now Cayer says: “There is too much emotional baggage, a mental block. I can teach him a very good loose forehand, he will have 19 in a row, but if he misses the 20th the racket goes into the fence.
“I understand because when I was 13 I went through the same thing – even if I was not world No1 in my age group like him. They changed my grip and 50 years later I have never got my forehand back. But why worry? As a doubles player, Jamie doesn’t need to rally with forehands. Watch him volley, watch him poach, and for me he is still the No 1.”
Jamie and Louis’s masterclass was part of the LTA’s new British Tennis Team Membership’scheme. To learn more visit lta.org.uk/membership