MUR­RAY AT THE CROSS­ROADS

World No 1 strug­gling for form head­ing into French Open

New Straits Times - - Sport -

WHEN the ATP Race stand­ings were up­dated this week Andy Mur­ray, the World No 1, lan­guished down at 13th.

It is not a sta­tis­ti­cal anom­aly ei­ther.

Un­like the ac­tual world rank­ing that is a rolling 12-month points to­tal, the Race stand­ings are a gauge of form since Jan­uary when ev­ery­body starts on zero.

On cur­rent form 13th is prob­a­bly gen­er­ous.

With the French Open start­ing on Sun­day, Mur­ray has ac­crued 1,210 to the 4,915 of Rafael Nadal and looks a pale im­i­ta­tion of the player who won his last 24 matches of 2016 to knock No­vak Djokovic off his pedestal and seize power in men’s ten­nis.

Not since Pete Sam­pras in 1999 has a World No 1 had a worse start to a year with Mur­ray’s win per­cent­age at a fairly mod­est 70.8 per cent — a fig­ure that ac­tu­ally dis­guises just how bad the slump has be­come of late.

There was an en­cour­ag­ing run to the semi-fi­nals in Barcelona where he lost to Do­minic Thiem but in Madrid, where he went down with a whim­per against Borna Coric, and in Rome where he was de­fend­ing cham­pion he was out­classed by Fabio Fognini.

Last year, when Mur­ray won nine ti­tles in­clud­ing a sec­ond Wim­ble­don, a sec­ond Olympic ti­tle and the ATP Tour Fi­nals in Lon­don, he suf­fered nine losses all sea­son.

This time his win-loss record reads 16-7 and it’s only May.

Mur­ray seems mud­dled and at a loss to ex­plain his strug­gles.

But with a huge haul of rank­ing points to de­fend in the next cou­ple of months, start­ing at Roland Gar­ros where he lost to Djokovic in last year’s fi­nal af­ter his best clay­court sea­son, he needs a so­lu­tion fast.

“There is no rea­son for it from my end,” Mur­ray said.

“I’m just not play­ing good ten­nis and I need to try and work out how to turn that around. Last cou­ple of weeks have been a strug­gle and a long way from where I’d like to be.”

It is the na­ture of the de­feats that is most sur­pris­ing.

At the start of the Euro­pean clay­court swing in Monte Carlo Mur­ray lost to Spa­niard Al­bert Ramos-Vi­no­las hav­ing led 4-0 in the fi­nal set. In Madrid he was bul­lied by the 20-year-old Coric and in Rome he was flat­tered by the 6-2, 6-4 score­line against an in­spired Fognini.

Ear­lier in his ca­reer Mur­ray was crit­i­cised for be­ing too pas­sive with his game — a pref­er­ence for play­ing counter-at­tack­ing ten­nis based on rock-solid de­fence and su­per­hu­man court cov­er­age rather than tak­ing it on.

With the help of coach Ivan Lendl, he be­came more force­ful, lead­ing to break­through ti­tles at the 2012 US Open and Wim­ble­don in 2013 and Lendl’s sec­ond stint as coach spurred Mur­ray to be­come world num­ber one.

How­ever, he seems to have slipped back into lock-down mode and has paid the price es­pe­cially against ag­gres­sive op­po­nents who en­joy play­ing on the front foot such as Thiem and Fognini.

A closer look at the data of­fers some clues on Mur­ray’s woes. Last year he won 85 per cent of his ser­vice games com­pared to 79 per cent this year.

In 2016 he won 54 per cent of points on sec­ond serve — an area of weak­ness he worked tire­lessly to make more of a weapon.

That vul­ner­a­bil­ity seems to have re­turned as in his last two de­feats he man­aged to win 37 and 35 per­cent re­spec­tively.

And his fore­hand, another shot that be­came far more po­tent un­der Lendl, seems to have lost some fizz.

Mur­ray in­sists the num­ber one rank­ing has not weighed him down and the fact that he has reached 30 should not be sig­nif­i­cant — as th­ese days 30 ap­pears to be the new 20.

The bout of shin­gles he suf­fered af­ter the Aus­tralian Open and el­bow prob­lem that flared up dur­ing a first-round de­feat to Vasek Pospisil at In­dian Wells have been con­trib­u­tory fac­tors while there are sug­ges­tions his pre-sea­son train­ing block left him jaded for the bat­tles ahead.

It could all turn round at Roland Gar­ros, where Lendl will be a re­as­sur­ing pres­ence back in his box af­ter leav­ing match-day coach­ing du­ties to Jamie Del­gado for most of this year.

But with vul­ner­a­bil­ity hav­ing re­placed the sense of in­vin­ci­bil­ity Mur­ray worked so hard to build, the vul­tures will be cir­cling above him on the red Parisian clay. Reuters

Andy Mur­ray has dropped to No 13 in the ATP Race stand­ings.

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