In his first match on the ATP Challenger Tour tennis' second-tier professional circuit in 2003, Scottish tennis player Andy Murray, then 16 years old, played the South African Davis Cup veteran Neville Godwin. Unprepared for Murray's style of play, Godwin suffered what can only be described as a meltdown. As Murray tells it, Godwin tried to hit him with a ball in the middle of the match and then turned his rage inward, babbling to himself things such as "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy" and "He plays like a 12-year-old." After losing in straight sets, Godwin retired from tennis. Murray smiles archly as he retells this story. Asked if his game is engineered to inflict such misery on opponents, his smile widens: "Well I hope so."
In an era when majesty dominates tennis in the form of Roger Federer's balletic classicism and Rafael Nadal's thumping athleticism, Murray, 23, has staked out a place in the game's elite as a scrappy, stubborn and at times irresistible junkballer. On June 21, he will enter Wimbledon as the world's fourth-ranked player and attempt to become the first Brit to win the championships since Fred Perry in 1936. His pre-Wimbledon form has been patchy, but whether or not he goes all the way it's a safe bet that Murray's campaign won't be pretty.
If part of tennis' appeal lies in its metronomic patter and the quickening drumbeat of a tightly contested point, Murray's game is a concerto of arrhythmic disharmony. He turns points into traffic jams, grinding rallies to a near halt and using a variety of speeds, spins and angles to prevent opponents from accelerating into the freewheeling power game that defines the modern tennis match. A typical Murray point either lures an opponent into a mistake or devolves into such disjointed patty-cake that Murray is suddenly presented with a shot so easy he can slam it away for a winner. His game is not tennis; it is antitennis.
"I try to put my opponents in positions they don't like," Murray says. "That doesn't necessarily mean hitting the ball a million miles an hour as a lot of the players do now. It might mean using a short slice, or a slow high ball junking it around a bit." His former coach Mark Petchey has a different way of putting it: "He doesn't beat you. He torments you."
But just how far can a player go in tennis today while refusing to play in the contemporary style? Federer has said that Murray's cat-and-mouse game is inherently limiting, and that the Scot should learn to actively win points by hitting more winners or approaching the net. "I think, over a career, you want to look to win a point more than for an opponent to miss," he said in 2008. Federer's sentiment proved prophetic during Murray's only two appearances in a Grand Slam final the U.S. Open in 2008 and the Australian Open in January. Murray lost both times to Federer, whose flowing, attacking game proved supreme.
Former British No. 1 Tim Henman agrees with Federer's assessment, but says Murray has the skills to dominate points it's simply that he is still learning how to properly use them. "Andy plays best when he is proactive, not reactive, and when he dictates points with big shots," Henman says. "That's an even more important aspect when he plays the top guys. Those guys won't beat themselves." Brad Gilbert, another of Murray's former coaches and author of the popular tennis self-help book Winning Ugly, says Murray will win a Grand Slam soon enough, even without major changes to his game. "There is no set formula you can have a great-looking style but not have great results," Gilbert says. "[Murray's] been to the final twice already. That means he's got the game."
Can the British public so desperate for a homegrown champion to hold up next to the elegant, pleat-panted Perry truly accept Murray? In his home country, Murray is often characterized as grumpy and charmless. It's not a totally unfair charge. Even the most buoyant TV reporters are regularly deflated by his deadened monotone and seeming lack of enthusiasm. "I just play and try to be myself," he says. "I don't need everybody to like me. That's not why I play tennis."
Which begs the question: Why does Murray play tennis, given how few outward displays of affection for the game he displays on court? Former coach Petchey says that behind closed doors Murray is "deep-thinking." And there does seem to be something brooding about him. At last year's Aegon Championships at London's Queen's Club, a prestigious warm-up event for Wimbledon, he repeatedly punched the strings on his racquet so hard that his hands bled. Instead of bandaging them, he let the blood drip all over his clothes like a Middle Age flagellant. And that was on the way to winning the tournament.
"There are certain bits about my job that can be difficult," Murray says. "I do love going to the gym, working hard. I enjoy that side more than practicing on the tennis court." Indeed, in conversation with Murray it is clear that tennis is not his passion. It is his compulsion. He is fueled not by any joy he might take in his talent but by a nagging desire to constantly prove himself. That makes him obstinate, tetchy and at times difficult to warm to. But it also makes him tough to beat. Pressed further about what aspects of tennis he does enjoy, Murray's smile suddenly reappears. "Winning," he says.