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Steve Flink: Analyzing Andy Murray

2/15/2011 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Along with many other longtime observers of professional tennis, I found myself entirely conflicted when Novak Djokovic met Andy Murray in the final of the Australian Open a few weeks ago. It was such a monumental opportunity for both competitors—Djokovic knew he could claim validation at last after not capturing a major since he secured his first Grand Slam title in 2008 at Melbourne, while Murray had earned a third chance to appear in a major final, and thus create the opportunity to establish himself as the first British man since Fred Perry in 1936 to be victorious at a Grand Slam event.

We all know precisely what happened. The first set was locked at 4-4, but from that crucial juncture a top of the line Djokovic collected seven games in a row and broke the match wide open, surging to a 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 triumph that gave him a long awaited second Grand Slam championship. Djokovic performed almost impeccably in all facets of his game; the precision and consistency of his first serve and the unrelenting depth and pace of his ground strokes overwhelmed Murray, who was thoroughly outplayed. Yet the fact remains that Murray advertised his psychological instability in the middle of that critical contest; he won only six points in the first five games of the second set, and could easily have surrendered that set 6-0 if Djokovic had not missed a blistering return at set point.

To be sure, Murray fought honorably in the first and third sets of that match, but I felt his effort in the second set was tame and largely unprofessional. For whatever the reasons, he fell into disrepair and essentially gave up. By the time he regrouped in the third set, his plight was desperate. Not for the first time, I found myself perplexed by the complexity of Murray—most importantly his self destructive side—and so I turned to a man who makes his living as a Mental Training Coach. Rob Polishook is a graduate of Tulane University. Polishook got a Masters degree in Psychological Studies at Seton Hall University. He runs the Inside the Zone Sports Performance Group. He has worked extensively with athletes from all sports at every level, but he has a special feel for and comprehension of tennis, which is his chief passion.

Polishook spent a large chunk of the last week giving his undivided attention to what transpired with the leading British player “Down Under”, and we spent more than an hour on the phone as Polishook helped me to better understand the essence of this man Murray. Polishook has been reading Murray’s autobiography “Hitting Back”, and has devoured article after article about Murray online. A big picture thinker, Polishook has examined all of the ground breaking developments in Murray’s life, including the harrowing moment when Murray was nearly nine and was at school in his hometown Dunblane, Scotland and a massacre took place and 17 people were killed by a deranged man. Polishook, 50, has also reflected thoughtfully on the breakup of Murray’s parents in that same period of time. He knows how to put life altering events into perspective, and has followed Murray’s career closely over the years.

In Polishook’s view, “At this stage of Andy’s career, this loss to Djokovic in the Australian Open final is not a fire alarm. Look at players like Agassi, Clijsters and Lendl and how long it took them to win Grand Slam titles. And then think about Pete Sampras when he lost that [1992] U.S. Open final to Edberg, which was a turning point in his career. Pete admitted he did not compete well in that match. The way I see it, Murray can really use this loss as a springboard, the way Sampras did with Edberg. When you think of Murray, you see someone with a lot of weapons, not a Federer but someone who is still trying to find his game. Djokovic’s game now is like an amped up Agassi. For Murray, it is going to be a little harder and it is going to take more time for things to meld. But I have no doubt he will win Grand Slam tournaments.”

As Polishook reflects on Murray’s defeat against Djokovic, he says, “Murray looked a little lost and uncomfortable in his skin during that second set. He lost his focus. It felt to me like he was focusing on the past and on previous points. I suspect he was also getting caught up in expectations as opposed to the tenets of competing, which is ‘Hey, what is going on and how can I adapt? How do I become aware that I have lost my focus so I can regain it?’ Murray did not adapt and adjust well in the match with Djokovic until it was too late.”

Polishook elaborates on that point, saying, “You look at these great players like Nadal and Federer and they are always adjusting, always adapting. Once Murray lost that 39 stroke rally at 4-5, 15-30 in the first set against Djokovic, the wind came out of his sail. He simply did not compete the way he did in previous matches in the tournament. This was evident in the stretch when he lost seven games in a row. I suspect his focus was straying/staying in the past, with being upset with losing that game/set. His loss of focus was clear. At this level, especially in the finals of a Grand Slam, it is imperative to be aware and bring your focus back to the present and to think about what it will take to turn things around. The major premise of competing, or what I call ‘competeology’, is adapting to situations and keeping balance when adversity strikes.”

Polishook is well aware that the 23-year-old Murray has yet to win a set in three Grand Slam final round appearances, falling in straight set showdowns against Federer in the 2008 U.S. Open and the 2010 Australian Open as well as his recent defeat at the hands of Djokovic. As Polishook points out, “I don’t think you can lump those three finals together. The first one against Federer, he was probably happy to be there. He did not have a lot of time to process his win over Nadal in the semifinals which was played over two days, and then the next thing he knew he was back on the treadmill. The second loss in Australia against Federer in 2010 was simple from a psychological perspective: Murray didn’t adjust for two sets. He kept going with his backhand slice and was never taking the ball down the line. He did not look to get offensive. Only in the third set did he make that adjustment but it was too late. And he did not adapt when he played Djokovic this year.”

From his extensive reading on Murray—and his own observations and analysis from a distance—Polishook asserts, “The question is what is going on with Murray internally that is maybe holding him back and blocking him. He talks about how he is misunderstood and it feels to me like he is trying hard to prove who he is. High pressure situations bring out our deepest vulnerabilities. The television commentators have mentioned Murray’s mouth twitch. That comes from pressure, but that mouth twitch is also Murray releasing psychologically, no different really than Nadal picking at his tush. That doesn’t affect Nadal, so with Murray and the mouth twitch it is more about whether he moves forward with it, or is it blocking him?”

I wanted to know what Polishook would say to Murray if he had the chance to give the British player the benefit of his wisdom as a mental training coach. Polishook said, “If I was working with him, the first thing I would do is acknowledge the work he has done and reinforce the belief he has in his process. The second thing I would let him know is that he is not broken and he doesn’t need to be fixed, but he should explore what might be blocking him[in major finals] and try to gain an awareness of that; he needs to explore who he is and what he wants to be. I would also talk to him about creating a self regulation system for himself, or an anchor, something he can do when he starts feeling out of control that can bring his attention back. What I would recommend to him is focusing on the sounds, the feel or the rhythm of his breath. When you do that, you change your focus.”

Having said all that, Polishook clarifies that his first order of business would be listening to Murray, rather than the other way around. “An athlete is a person first and a performer second, so I would try to help him reconnect with who Andy Murray is as a person and help him bring out his special, unique qualities on the court. The last thing he needs is more people telling him what he needs to do. I would get him to guide me and even pull me. I would reinforce that he doesn’t have to be someone different on the court and off the court. The goal is to make that connection because then he is genuine and authentic.”

After Murray fell behind in the final against Djokovic at the Australian Open, he was seen releasing some of his rage in the direction of his entourage at courtside, which included his loyal and steadfast mother. Polishook has an interesting take on what might have been at the roots of Murray’s anger. “It gets back to the idea of the person first and performer second. Maybe Murray was telling them to be quiet because perhaps in their way they were saying, ‘Come on, Andy, you can do it. You can do it.!’ And Murray was trying to say to them, ‘I am just in such a bind so let go of the expectations.’ It was his way of saying, ‘You don’t know what it is like to be out here trying to win a Grand Slam final.’ “

I had believed at the time that Murray was harming himself significantly by venting in that negative fashion. I felt he would have been better off tending to his business and not taking out his anxieties on those who were fervently supporting him as friends and family. Polishook made me look at that issue differently. “The venting isn’t the problem,” he said. “It is what he did afterwards when he continued to spiral. Look at John McEnroe. He vented but he often got himself back to a place of calm. So I didn’t see the venting as a problem for Murray, other than the sense that it could be a symptom of something deeper. But the question is: when he was venting did Murray bring himself that day back to a place of calm? I think the answer is no.”

Looking at Murray in a larger context, examining this gifted yet still unfulfilled player in a comprehensive way, Polishook remains optimistic. He believes that Murray is still trying to find his game, and to find himself as well. “You think of Federer and you know who he is. You think of Nadal and know who he is. Lleyton Hewitt is fiery and expressive. Federer is not fiery but you get the fist pump. But with Andy it feels to me like he doesn’t quite feel like he is within himself. When I think of Murray he often appears to be different players at different times. He has to figure out what kind of player he wants to be. In turn, I don’t know if there is a disconnect between who he is and what you see on the court, but from what I have read and seen it actually seems like there is. He comes across as aloof and doesn’t seem to let people in but apparently that is not who he is. He may be at the point now where he is better able to navigate and figure out who he wants in his camp a bit more than in the past.”

I vividly recall the trials and tribulations of Lendl and Agassi as they sought to find a way to reverse a losing pattern in Grand Slam finals. Lendl understandably lost his first major final to Bjorn Borg in five sets at Roland Garros, as the Swede captured his eleventh and last major in 1981. In the 1982 and 1983 U.S. Open finals, Lendl was not able to summon his finest tennis as Jimmy Connors took him apart in four set finals. Mats Wilander exposed Lendl’s relative discomfort on grass courts when he toppled his rival in the 1983 Australian Open final. Thereafter, Lendl won 8 of his last 15 final round appointments at the majors.

As for Agassi, he was upset by Andres Gomez in the 1990 French Open final when he was the heavy favorite. Then an almost unconscious Pete Sampras rolled past Agassi in the 1990 U.S. Open final. The next spring, Jim Courier came from behind to oust Agassi in a five set final back at Roland Garros. For the third straight time in a Grand Slam final, Agassi had been the man to beat; for the third consecutive time, he had met defeat. But Agassi won Wimbledon in 1992 for his first triumph at the majors. Beginning with that victory, he secured victories in eight of his last 12 major finals.

So there is every reason for Murray—even at this difficult moment in his career— to avoid discouragement. It is not too late for him to make amends and start recording Grand Slam tournament wins. The feeling persists that he is too good not to cash in on his full potential. Rob Polishook—a good judge of talent, a highly respected man in his field, a realist with the knowledge to back up his projections—envisions large dreams being realized by Andy Murray.

As Polishook concludes, “I think Murray is going to use this loss to Djokovic in another Grand Slam final in a positive way. There is a saying that the sun rises after the darkest hour. And kind of like Sampras did when he lost that match to Edberg, Murray is going to learn from it and use his defeat as a stepping stone. I am encouraged about what Murray can do in the future.”

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