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Andy Murray is struggling and anxious – it may be a good thing | Kevin Mitchell | Sport


It is easy, and dangerous, to underestimate the depth of Andy Murray’s dilemma after another unexpected setback in his meandering season: bundled out of the second round of the Italian Open he was defending for the first time. He is, after all, still No1 in the world.

But check the descent. This time last year Murray, who had not long become a father for the first time, was driving Novak Djokovic to distraction on Campo Centrale, ignoring a steady Sunday afternoon drizzle and uneven light as he forged on to win one of nine titles that would garland his 2016 campaign. He had not lost a set all week.

It was the first sign of the confidence and calm that would carry him through the summer to the final of the French Open, a second Wimbledon title, a second Olympic gold medal and, ultimately, the world No1 ranking that Djokovic had held for 122 weeks in a row.

Murray rubber-stamped the achievement by beating the Serb in the final of the ATP World Tour Finals in London. He was the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year for a record third time. The Queen gave him a knighthood. If he had wanted them, he might have been given the keys to 10 Downing Street. Or maybe Holyrood.

Relief followed exultation. Ennui was not far behind. Paradoxically, the mountainous challenges that had driven him to heights of excellence in impossible circumstances, feeding his gift for perversity, had been momentarily taken away. It had been tough, but he had prevailed week after week, without setbacks.

By the time Murray reached Melbourne, one or two pieces of the machine had fallen off. The roaring aggression and unquenchable stamina, which helped him win 25 matches in a row at the end of last year, dissipated. He should never have lost to Mischa Zverev, the older, less gifted brother of Alex, who played way above his world ranking of 50 to put Murray out of the fourth round of the Australian Open.

Murray had become worryingly passive, hindered by the return of an ingrained caution he had begun to manage under the guidance of Ivan Lendl, when the Czech joined his team at the same tournament for the first time in 2012. He looked to be “over-thinking”. Later, as he fought to regain his composure, he would carry a piece of paper in his kitbag, and refer to its wisdom in moments of stress or doubt.

Last year he lost nine matches. It is the middle of May and he has already lost seven, hardly disastrous but something obviously is not right. He needs another piece of paper, perhaps, because he is losing to players whom previously he would crush. Five of those who have got the better of him – Zverev, Vasek Pospisil, Albert Ramos-Viñolas, Borna Coric and now the unpredictable Fabio Fognini – have a combined world ranking of 291.

As Murray headed out of the magical Foro Italico in the early hours of Wednesday morning, his thoughts more than likely flicked to home, where he would find personal warmth with his wife and child. Kim and Sophia have brought meaning and perspective to his life that fuelled that inner contentment that tapped into his core talent in 2016.

Nevertheless, after 13 years on the Tour, he knows there are no guarantees, and one quality Murray demands of himself and others is honesty. As he agreed when it was pointed out to him that he had barely twitched when a gettable drop-shot by Fognini begged to be put away: “Definitely [my] movement the last two weeks has not been good. Fabio did play some good drop shots but, like you say, I wasn’t actually making a move or a step towards the ball. That’s not a good sign.”

Asked if being top dog after years scrapping in the junkyard affects his form or attitude, he said: “It really doesn’t, to me. I’m not lying.”

However, aggressive young opponents such as Coric and Dominic Thiem have out-hit him, not to mention Fognini who hit 23 forehand winners, most of them unreachable. His second serve is not clicking. His court awareness is not at its electric best. And his rivals sense vulnerability. That is deadly in any sport, from boxing, which he understands well, to tennis.

Murray will be happier when Lendl lands at Heathrow on Sunday. They can then move to Paris and get down to work again. Murray finds sweat therapeutic. But he has just passed 30. Hard work gets harder.

It is not too late to right the ship for the French Open. Murray is not the only elite player searching for consistency. Djokovic, who last week sacked his coaching team after a decade of virtually non-stop success, is only now hitting the ball with his accustomed venom, and was too good for Aljaz Bedene on day three.

None of them is safe – but all of them can find a path back. That is why they have been so good for so long. There is nothing wrong with Murray’s game that he cannot fix.

His form is not good enough to win the French Open or keep his Wimbledon title. After the most glorious 12 months of his life, he has been hurled back to a familiar place of struggle and angst. It might be just what he needs.

Kyle Edmund



Kyle Edmund was eventually overwhelmed by Juan Martín Del Potro in Rome. Photograph: Gareth Copley/Getty Images



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