Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Andy Murray, No. 1 and newly knighted, still has room for more

MELBOURNE, Australia — "So Ivan, are you calling Andy 'Sir'?"

Ivan Lendl paused and then laughed, which would surely seem strange to those who know him only as Andy Murray's stone-faced coach in the front row of the players' box.

"Definitely not," Lendl said, chuckling some more before heading off down the crowded main hallway inside Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open.

Clearly, not much has changed in the Murray camp since his remarkable stretch run to the No. 1 ranking and a knighthood in 2016.

He is still tough on himself on court and on the changeovers. Still Andy — not Sir Andy — to his peers and mentor-in-chief, Lendl. Still deadpan and droll with his voice that sounds like it emanates from a mine shaft.

Asked on Monday by the on-court interviewer John Fitzgerald how Murray's wife, Kim, was handling the transition to Lady Kim, Murray said, "No more swearing during my matches, for anyone who saw that a few years ago."

He was referring to Kim's courtside language during his semifinal victory over Tomas Berdych at the 2015 Australian Open. Her tirade did not go unnoticed, and she returned for the final cheekily wearing a shirt that read, "Parental advisory explicit content."

Presumably, Lady Kim won't be wearing that sort of thing in the players' box from here on, either (or at least she wasn't on Monday).

"I haven't found it distracting really," Murray said of the knighthood. "I mean, I found out about it four or five weeks ago. Maybe if it happened a day or so, two days before the tournament. But I've had enough time to get my head around it."

Just as he has had plenty of time to prepare himself for the role of No. 1, however long it lasts.

I asked him on Monday, after his stuttering 7-5, 7-6 (7-5), 6-2 first-round victory over Illya Marchenko, if there had been any downside to No. 1, thinking he might bring up extra demands or burdens.

"No," he said. "It's been great. I think because it's taken me so long to get there, obviously I want to try to stay there. But also I feel like I'm mature enough now to handle it. Maybe if it happens when you're very young, you might feel extra pressures. The responsibilities might feel a bit much, but I think because I'm much older and more mature, it's been good."

The conventional tennis wisdom is that it is harder to hang on at the top than to reach the top.

"I hope not," Murray said.

But for anyone who believes that he now has nowhere to go but down, that is hardly true in Australia.

He has reached five singles finals in Melbourne and lost all five. No man has done so well at any Grand Slam tournament without breaking through to win the title.

Others have lost five finals in the same major event, including Lendl, who lost five at the U.S. Open. But he also won three. Bill Johnston lost six finals at the United States Championships, but won the event twice. John Bromwich lost five finals at the Australian Championships in the pre-Open era, but won the title twice, too.

Murray, at 29, is in unfortunately uncharted territory, all the more so because Novak Djokovic ended his own long run of frustration at the French Open last year by finally taking the title after reaching four semifinals and three finals.

"Look, it's still a remarkable record, five Slam finals in Australia, and deep down I think it means an enormous amount to Andy to finally complete the puzzle," said Roger Rasheed, the Australian who once coached Lleyton Hewitt when Hewitt was chasing the title here without success.

But Hewitt reached only one final in Melbourne. Murray is 46-11 here and has a better winning percentage at the Australian Open than at any other Grand Slam tournament except Wimbledon.

"Andy's been so close," Rasheed said. "What more does he have to do? Well, it's not a matter of big changes. It's just been a matter of points and the moments."

It's a matter of the opposition, too. The first of Murray's Australian Open defeats in the final came against Roger Federer in 2010. The last four came against Djokovic in 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2016.

"Andy played Roger in his prime and has been playing Novak in his prime," Rasheed said. "It's a handful of points changing the way the match falls. Andy's showing he's in his prime now. He just needs to get there and roll the dice again."

Murray's timing may still not be quite right. He played a great deal of tennis down the stretch in 2016 and was beaten by Djokovic in a high-quality final in Doha, Qatar, to start this season. Freshness just might be a factor down the stretch as well as Djokovic's eagerness to restore the pecking order.

But it does not seem quite right in light of their abilities that Djokovic has six Australian Open titles and Murray has not even one.

He broke down in tears after losing to Federer in 2010. He stared vacantly into space after losses to Djokovic and sportingly came up with the right words amid major disappointment. And yet he insisted on Monday that his emotions were not mixed when he thought about this tournament.

"Honestly, they're totally positive," said Murray, who plays 19-year-old Andrey Rublev in the second round on Wednesday. "I've had a lot of tough losses here, for sure. But I love it here. Played some great matches as well, but just haven't managed to win the final. But, you know, I keep coming back to try. I'll keep doing that until I'm done, but I still feel like I've got a few years left to try and do it."

He is, by any measure, due for a change of fortune in Melbourne. And if you like your sports with foreshadowing, the only other top tennis player to receive a knighthood was Sir Norman Brookes, the Australian star of the early 20th century.

Guess whose name has been given to the trophy awarded to the men's champion at the Australian Open?

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