Less pressure points for the champion

“Pressure,” said Gianluca Vialli on the eve of England’s World Cup campaign, “is a combination of expectations, scrutiny and consequences.”

The Italian with the perfect English, one of football’s most perceptive thinkers, added: “And when they wear an England shirt, yes, there are a lot of consequences. Italians are the opposite. We grew up eating pressure for breakfast.”

Although England’s dismal record from the penalty spot and in other clutch moments on the football pitch – including their tired finish against Italy – would suggest Vialli has a point, John McEnroe has another take on pressure, one that has nothing to do with nationality and everything to do with experience.

The more you have, the American says, the better you handle it. In conversation in Paris recently, he looked back on Andy Murray’s triumph at Wimbledon last year, when the Scot held his nerve under the most extraordinary coming together of “expectations, scrutiny and consequences”, and he witnessed a champion putting aside 77 years of history to see off the beast that is Novak Djokovic in a three-set final of sanity-threatening frenzy. Watching Murray come through that excruciating final service game, hands shaking, mind all over the place, convinced McEnroe that he will be stronger for the experience when he returns to the All England Club next week to defend his title.

In the ultimate clutch moment of his career, Murray proved himself – to McEnroe and everybody else and, most important, to his peers. However, had he not held serve with the cushion of three match points, there was a chance that Djokovic, sniffing doubt, would have gone on to steal the match. How that would have affected Murray nobody can be sure – not even the player himself.

“It is going to be amazing,” McEnroe says. “No one can ever say to him again: ‘Are you ever going to do it? How much pressure are you feeling?’ I’m not saying there is not going to be pressure. I remember I had gone through so much turmoil that I said to myself: ‘If I win it, I will never come back.’ But the moment I won, I thought: ‘I want to come back.’ He went through a lot to get through that.”

There is a particular sensation when you go out to defend the Wimbledon title. “There is always a feeling of immense accomplishment and … superiority is not quite the right word, but you feel the tradition of coming out at that time is different to other events. You have that brief moment of euphoria and then you have to accept that now you have to go through the whole idea of possibly winning again.

“You also have to go through the idea that the court is a little slicker [at the start of the tournament] and you talk yourself into thinking you have the advantage on Centre Court because you are the guy who knows how to play on it. You start to get into reality when you step on the court.”

But does McEnroe, who won Wimbledon in 1981, 1983 and 1984, really think it will be easier for Murray with the word “champion” next to his name? “For me it was,” he says. “It is tougher to stay at the top than to get there in the first place but it just seemed easier to win that event again. Some of it depends on how old you are and what you have been through. I am not going to say it is easier for him to win it a second time but there will be less pressure overall.

“No matter which way you slice it, it is pretty tough to win it, but I would think it will be quite a bit easier for him to do it. He has this window as long as he is healthy – and he seems like he is all the way back physically.”

McEnroe also identifies motivation that Murray has only recently acquired – winning a slam without coach Ivan Lendl: “I am sure he would like to win it without anyone around, to prove that he could do it on his own. Everyone would. It’s not like he doesn’t know the game inside out. He does. There is probably a tiny part of him [thinking that], and I’m guessing. Most of him shows the proper respect and he does believe, as most of us do, that Ivan made a positive difference: 5% or 7% – the difference between winning Wimbledon, [the] Olympics, [the] US Open and losing finals and semis. Whatever the combination of things, no one will ever know the answer.

“It’s only human nature to want to know what you can do on your own or with someone else. It’s not like there aren’t people around him, though. It’s not as if he hasn’t had coaching. Apparently he still speaks to Ivan.”

Did he think Lendl leaving scarred Murray, emotionally? “I am not sure. Not necessarily but it could have done. When I felt I was rejected by my first wife and she said: ‘Some day you will thank me for this,’ you know what? I do. And so, sometimes it is darkest before the dawn. You can think it is bleak and you can’t see. You never know.”

There is something else spurring Murray on, and it is more obvious: his rivalry with Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and, to a lesser extent, Roger Federer (not to mention the new wave). “Sometimes you get hungrier when you taste it,” McEnroe says. “You hit a wall at some stage when you don’t want it so bad, but you don’t know when that’s going to be – as far as competition or as far as health is concerned. Sometimes it’s just natural. You just taste it and you want it so bad that you find other gears.

“I won the US Open in 1979. When I lost to Björn Borg at Wimbledon [in 1980], I looked at this guy – he had won it four times in a row, and that made it five – and I thought: ‘How the hell does this guy want it so bad?’ It taught me something. And Murray’s been taught by these experts, like Nadal and Federer. They just find something in the well. They want it more than you thought was possible.”

As for the appointment of Amélie Mauresmo to replace Lendl, McEnroe cautions: “A couple of times I was asked [to coach], 15 or 20 years ago. When Boris [Becker] asked me to work with him, and Sergi Bruguera had asked, I ended up coming more or less a week before the Open. You can’t do anything a week before the Open and expect to make any sort of change. There’s no way you can work with, like, the fitness. That’s very difficult to walk into a situation like that. People are obviously set in their ways because they’ve had a lot of success.

Out of the ordinary
“But I was hoping Andy would do something out of the ordinary, like he did when he started working with Lendl, rather than the same old, same old … and he’s certainly accomplished that.”

McEnroe has always been disposed towards liking Murray. He sees something of himself in the nervous, edgy persona. There is a lightness of touch in some of their racket work, too, although Murray works in a more attritional, physical era.

But McEnroe spotted something during the win against Philipp Kohlschreiber at the French Open that encouraged him to believe Murray can cut it again if asked the hard questions. “We were calling the match for American TV. He was grabbing his leg and all this other stuff – 50 times, 100 times, whatever it was. All of a sudden – it was probably at, like, 5-5 or 6-6 in the fifth set – he started getting something from within. He just started getting into it, started pumping his fists, and he seemed to get way more positive.

“I loved that. I was extremely pleased to see it. It was the pure joy of competition. He somehow got past that other stuff and got to what it was all about. It just seemed beautiful at that moment.”

It was the moment Vialli identified as the defining point of sport, the moment that either terrifies or inspires. And Murray again proved up to the pressure. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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Kevin Mitchell
Kevin Mitchell works from Dublin. I am a neurogeneticist interested in the genetics of brain wiring and its contribution to variation in human faculties. Author of INNATE (2018). https://t.co/GjDT4WTDIQ Kevin Mitchell has over 20805 followers on Twitter.

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