Molding a new Mac
In Murray, Gilbert has a talented and volatile prodigy
Posted: Thursday March 1, 2007 12:46PM; Updated: Thursday March 1, 2007 3:56PM
Sometimes, sports has an awesome eye for irony. In tennis, the best one right now is this: The great hope of British tennis more closely resembles former British public enemy No.1 -- John McEnroe -- than any of the proper and refined players of the United Kingdom's sporting past.
There is no denying Andy Murray is a tremendous talent. But there's also no denying that at times he leaves the conservative British public cringing at his on-court antics.
In startling contrast to the demeanor of the former king of British tennis, Tim Henman, Murray frequently tosses his racket, curses at himself and mocks and verbally abuses those in his player's box. I watched him play his quarterfinal match in San Jose, Calif., two weeks ago against Lee Hyung-Taik, and he was bouncing his racket off the ground like a pogo stick.
Interestingly enough, while Murray doesn't seem to fit the placid profile of British tennis culture, he also does something it desperately needs: He wins. The 19-year-old Scotsman is quickly closing in on the top 10 after defending his title in San Jose. So far, it seems as if many who follow the game are happy to accommodate a "Just win, baby" stance on Murray's antics.
I caught up with his coach, former player Brad Gilbert, the other day to discuss life on the road with the young prodigy, and Gilbert dismissed any suggestion that Murray's combustible manner was weighing on their relationship. Instead, he rationalized that Murray's competitiveness and desire to win gives in to frustration at times, but reasoned that since the teen star does an admirable job of not letting it carry over to ensuing points, it isn't a problem.
"Look, it would be a problem if it hurt his play," Gilbert said. "But it doesn't -- it actually helps him play better to let it out. Some players yell and scream and can't refocus by the next point, but Andy can."
But what about ending up on the wrong side of one of Murray's outbursts? "I know it's not personal," Gilbert said. "Andy needs someone and something to focus on other than his frustration, and if I have to be a verbal punching bag during matches and it eventually contributes to a victory, then so be it."
Gilbert is a staunch believer in doing whatever it takes to win, as evidenced by his best-selling book, Winning Ugly, and since he doesn't feel it is a personal attack, he's willing to take one for the team. Gilbert has done another masterful job with his latest charge.
Much like his previous coaching experiences with Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, Gilbert takes enormously talented players and helps them understand how to best use their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. That is the very definition of a coach, and there are few better in tennis than Gilbert.
What's interesting, though, is that Murray most closely resembles Gilbert in his style of play. Murray is a bigger, stronger version of Gilbert during his 14-year career -- but with more weapons and ways to win points -- but they share many similarities.
Like Gilbert, Murray is an incredible mover on the court and is a master at defense and figuring out ways to put his opponents in uncomfortable positions where they are more apt to make errors. Both players make weapons out of their return of serves and passing shots, and Murray, like his coach, has a knack for pulling incredible winners from unimaginable positions on the court.
Murray's potential is boundless, and his ultimate goal of being the first player from Great Britain to win Wimbledon in 71 years will ultimately be determined by how he develops physically -- and if he can duplicate his victory over Roger Federer in a more meaningful match than, say, the second round of Cincinnati, as he did last year.
Even if Murray doesn't reach that goal, British tennis has many exciting fortnights to look forward to thanks to the merging of Murray's talent and Gilbert's mastery of pragmatic coaching.