The Curse of the Australian Open Hangover

If you're not first, you're last.

Andy Murray is two-for-two. He has reached two consecutive Australian Open finals, got trounced in each, and lost his game in the aftermath. Murray’s poor performances have been attributed to a hollow constitution; his ensuing malaises hardly refute the diagnosis. In 2010 Murray went 5-5 in his first five ATP tournaments after the Aussie and didn’t win a title until his 11th attempt. So far in 2011 he’s winless (0-3) since Djokovic schooled him in Melbourne. The tailspin caused Murray to part ways with part-time coach, Alex Corretja. On the plus side Murray did give hope, however brief (or false), to the viability of Donald Young’s career.

The loss in Australia was Murray’s third failed attempt to capture his first Slam. What’s interesting about the resulting depression is the first finals loss – the 2008 US Open – essentially served as a springboard: Murray won the very next tournament he entered, and three of his next five (20-2 record). Perhaps the younger Murray felt more emboldened than disappointed at having lost in a Slam final. It was his first chance; just the start of better things to come. His expectations were undoubtedly greater in his two subsequent trips to major finals. The losses, therefore, more mentally debilitating.

Curiously though, Murray has plenty of company enduring an Australian hangover; not surprising given the continent’s reputation for drinking prowess. (After a night of boozing  with Aussie great, John Newcombe, George W. Bush – when he was still on the sauce – declared Newk to be a “black belt” in the discipline). Since 1998 there have been nine occasions in which a male player lost seeking his first Grand Slam title in Melbourne. Only once did the player draw inspiration from his Grand Slam run and go on a tear. And since that player was moody Marcelo Rios, it’s quite possible that to him losing the Australian final held no more gravity than losing in Acapulco. Here’s the list:

Year Runner-Up Next 5 ATP tournaments # of tournaments until next title
2011 Andy Murray 0-3
2010 Andy Murray 5W, 5L 11
2008 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 4W, 5L 8
2007 Fernando Gonzalez 5W, 5L 16
2006 Marcos Baghdatis 6W, 5L 14
2003 Rainer Schuettler 8W, 5L 21
2001 Arnaud Clement 5W, 5L 65
1999 Thomas Enqvist 8W, 5L 22
1998 *Marcelo Rios 14W, 3L 3
*Rios won 2 of his next 5 tournaments including the Indian Wells/Miami double

Over that same time period Roland Garros hosted ten potential first-timers who can up a match short. Two of those players – Mariano Puerta and Andrei Medvedev – never won a tournament again. But they were journeymen on the backside of their careers, and in Puerta’s case, a soon-to-be-suspended doper. Guillermo Coria practically committed career suicide when he blew a two sets-to-none lead in the 2004 final. He did manage to win another tournament, but he was never the same player. The rest of the lot, however, recovered fairly nicely; much better than their Aussie brethren.

Year Runner-Up Next 5 ATP tournaments # of tournaments until next title
2010 Robin Soderling 13W, 5L 11
2009 Robin Soderling 10W, 4L 2
2005 Mariano Puerta 6W, 5L Never
2004 Guillermo Coria 5W, 7L* 19
2003 Martin Verkerk 6W, 4L 4
2002 Juan Carlos Ferrero 11W, 5L 7
2001 Alex Corretja 9W, 4L 3
2000 Magnus Norman 8W, 4L 2
1999 Andrei Medvedev 3W, 5L Never
1998 Alex Corretja 7W, 4L 3
*Coria’s fifth tournament was a round-robin format; he went 0-3

Wimbledon and the U.S. Open proved much more difficult for newbies. Each saw only four tournaments over that time in which a player nearly bagged a first Slam. With such small sample sizes, it’s difficult to make equal comparisons. But combining both nearly equals the amount from Australia and the fallout looks much less severe. And in the cases of Murray and Novak Djokovic at the US Open, the experience proved very positive.

Year Runner-Up Next 5 ATP tournaments # of tournaments until next title
2010 Tomas Berdych 6W, 5L 19*
2003 Mark Philippoussis 12W, 4L 4
2002 David Nalbandian 3W, 5L 9
1998 Goran Ivanisevic 8W, 5L 75**
**2001 Wimbledon
US Open
Year Runner-Up Next 5 ATP tournaments # of tournaments until next title
2008 Andy Murray 20W, 2L* 1
2007 Novak Djokovic 15W, 5L** 1
1999 Todd Martin 3W, 6L*** Never
1998 Mark Philippoussis 8W, 5L 6
*Murray won 3 of his next 5 tournaments; the fifth being the first tournament of 2009
** Djokovic won 2 of his next 5 tournaments; the fifth being the first of 2008 (Australian Open). He went 0-3 in the year end round robin.
***Martin’s fifth tournament was a round-robin format. He went 1-2.

Explanations? A case could be made the Australian fielded more accidental finalists: hello Clement and Schuettler. Neither ever got another sniff at major singles final. Being fresh from the off-season perhaps they caught the rest of the draw napping. But the others in the group have more impressive resumes. In the cases of Tsonga and Baghdatis, they were top juniors and legitimate up-and-comers playing in their first Slam final. Parlaying their runs into early season success would be a natural progression; just like Murray and Djokovic did following their losses at the  U.S. Open. Didn’t happen.

Bottom line: Murray’s swoon may just be an indictment on him. But history shows for those seeking their first Slam, losing in the finals of the “Happy Slam” can be seriously depressing.

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