Murray’s Lament

Andy Murray is the Tin Man. When you cut through all the media-speak, that’s the basic assessment of his underwhelming performance in the Aussie Open final. Call it nerves, lack of guts, the burden of expectations, or being British, it’s all code for the boy not having enough heart when there’s a Slam title on the line. This is the third time Murray has made a major final, and it’s the third time he went home without winning a set. An ignominious hat trick. But don’t label Murray a disappointment just yet: several multiple-Slam winners struggled mightily to capture their first. Murray just needs the right situation to fall his way to get off the schneid. Here are a few scenarios:

The Ivan Lendl Model: Hope for your opponent to have an historic collapse

Lendl was wearing the golden sombrero heading into the 1984 Roland Garros final: He struck out in his first four Slam finals with losses to Borg, Connors (twice), and Wilander; with 26 Slams between them, a pretty respectable bunch. Murray can relate having lost to Federer (twice) and Djokovic. Still, Lendl was dominant outside of the Slams. It made no sense that at 24 he had yet to win a major. If Murray now has a monkey on his back, Lendl was carrying around a mastodon.

And he really should have been 0-for-5. McEnroe dominated Lendl the first two sets, but allowed a weird tantrum concerning a courtside cameraman to derail his momentum. Once Lendl got the third set, and his teeth in the match, McEnroe couldn’t shake him. It was the first of Lendl’s eight Slam titles; a substantial haul given his slow start. (See Andy, there’s always a silver-lining). All credit to Ivan’s determination, but Mac gagged this one. It’s why he boils any time someone mentions this match, Paris, Lendl, two-set leads, cameramen, stuffed animals, rainbows…

The Andre Agassi/Kim Clijsters Model: Hope to play a mental midget

Like Murray, Agassi also started his career 0-for-3 in Slam finals. He was the consensus favorite in all three matches, too. His first shot, against an over-the-hill Andres Gomez at the 1990 French Open, was a mind-boggling loss – disintegrating hairpiece or not. Even if he played with a wood racquet, wearing an eye-patch and sweating gin Agassi should have won. Gomez went on to win just one more Grand Slam match in his career. That same year Sampras gave Agassi a spanking in finals at Flushing Meadows. Sampras became the player of his generation, but at the time that was supposed to be Agassi’s calling. The following spring Agassi returned to the Roland Garros finals where he squandered a two sets-to-one lead to Courier, his old Bollettieri sparring partner. Legend has it that during a crucial rain delay in the fourth set, Jose Higueras advised Courier to move further behind the baseline to give himself more time to delay with Agassi’s pace. Bollettieri’s advice to Agassi? Change socks. Not exactly the stuff of Lombardi. (In Nick’s defense clay stains must be treated immediately or else the garment is ruined.)

It took having Goran Ivanisevic on the other side of the net for Agassi to capture his first Slam. The big lefty could serve, but wasn’t known for his tactics or steely resolve. He once described his matches as horror movies of his own making, only he doesn’t know the endings. Still, having that cannonball delivery made him a huge threat every year at Wimbledon. The two met in the ’92 final; it went five up-and-down sets, but Agassi finally popped his Grand Slam cherry. He would go on to win seven more, four of which came against finals opponents who would never win a Slam, and two against one Slam wonders. In Vegas parlance that’s like being dealt pocket rockets.

Clijsters came up one match short on her first four tries: losing 12-10 in the final set to Capriati in her finals debut; then a streak of three finals losses over four Slams to compatriot and friend (probably not) Justine Henin. Clijsters clearly had the game to win a major, but was dogged by a nice-girl image. Much like Murray, many questioned her killer-instinct and ability to perform her best under the brightest lights.

Enter Mary Pierce. One of the godmothers of big babe tennis (and a human rain delay), Pierce actually owned two Slam titles going into the 2005 US Open final with Clijsters. But earlier in the year she shrunk badly against Henin in the Roland Garros finals and was the epitome of streaky. Her matches were generally a shellacking in one direction or the other. Can you recall a compelling Mary Pierce match? They aren’t many and this one was no exception. Clijsters only had to be steady and allow Pierce to implode with a deadly combination of inconsistent ground strokes and self-doubt. After her recent win in Melbourne, Clijsters now has a 4-4 lifetime record in Slam finals.

The Goran Ivanisevic/Jana Novotna Model: Stick around long enough to exorcise your demons

These are probably not the role models Murray aspires to emulate. Both are one-slammers and were nearly 30 when they did it. They also suffered massive disappointments along the way. But that Slam was Wimbledon. Would Murray sign up for that right now? He would end his career with the unusual distinction of being both an underachiever and a national hero.

Goran finally landed his white whale in his fourth, and least likely, trip to the finals. He was only in the draw thanks to a wildcard (everybody loves a train-wreck) and seemed a long shot to win matches, let alone the tournament. But one-by-one his opponents fell to his massive serving and date with destiny. Goran took out Rafter, an otherwise superior player, 9-7 in the fifth, in one of the most dramatic and raucous finals in Slam history. Instead of a horror movie, it was a classic feel-good Hollywood ending.

Novotna’s win was more like German cinema: only for devotees of the art form. She beat an uninspiring opponent (Tauziat) in a pocket of time with a mortal No. 1 (Hingis) and before the rise of a dominant era (sisters Williams). There was relief that she could finally put her meltdown against Graf five years earlier to bed, but other than that nobody really gave a crap.

At least Murray has that going for him: everything he does is heavily scrutinized. That, and the fact that no man who reached three Slam finals in the Open era ended with a slamless career. It’s just a matter of time, but every Tin Man eventually finds his wizard.

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