Andy Murray finally breaks through

SHAUN ASSAEL: Several times this summer you went to Wimbledon and sat in the stands when nobody else was there. What did the empty seats of the All England Club say to you?
ANDY MURRAY: It was a time for reflection, really. Normally when I go on that court, I'm in the moment of the match, trying to stay focused. But when you actually sit there, when no one is there—it gave me time to think about all of the matches that I played there, all of the memories of the matches I've watched there since I was a kid. It has so much history, it helped me realize what being on that court means.

ASSAEL: Did that help you win your gold medal in the Olympics?
MURRAY: I think having been through the experience of playing in a big Wimbledon final [a month earlier] helped more than anything. When I played Novak [Djokovic] in the final of the Australian Open, he'd already been there and won it. And Roger [Federer] had been to the Wimbledon final many, many times before we met there. I'd never experienced those occasions before. So I think going through that at Wimbledon helped me the next time I set foot on the court.

ASSAEL: After you lost to Federer at Wimbledon, you broke down and started your postmatch speech by choking back the words "I'm getting closer." The fans went berserk. But does the attention you get in the U.K. ever border on unhealthy?
MURRAY: [Laughing] I don't know if people felt sorry for me or if it was just the first time that fans have seen that sort of emotion from me. You know, I'm quite an emotional person when I'm fighting matches, but when the cameras are on, I haven't been particularly open, especially in the last few years. So that was a different side of me that they saw. And I feel like yeah, the support did change going into the Olympics. I think that definitely helped me get over that hurdle.

ASSAEL: Has your relationship with the media changed as well?
MURRAY: I got used to the media's expectations of me after a while. The grand slam tag is something that our country had been waiting on for so long, and maybe winning a slam was something I wanted too much. I became so obsessed with it that I wasn't focusing on all my other matches. I was just interested in the slams. And that isn't particularly healthy, but that's more my fault than anything else. But winning the U.S. Open and the Olympics was a massive weight off my shoulders.

ASSAEL: How has that changed your game?
MURRAY: I feel more free to go for my shots and be a bit more aggressive. I've learned that it's better to play the match on my terms and take some chances instead of letting my opponent dictate everything. And I can take a few more chances because I don't feel the pressure of having to prove something every time I step onto the court.

ASSAEL: Sean Connery, a fellow Scot, was at the U.S. Open to cheer you on. Your mom, who coaches Great Britain's Fed Cup team, was there too. Who's tougher: James Bond or your mom?
MURRAY: [Laughing] I think I'd take James Bond over my mom any day of the week. I'm a huge James Bond fan, actually, so that was cool. I've met him a few times, and he is a very tough man. But my mom is very emotional, like me. I think it hurts her more than me sometimes when I lose tough matches.

ASSAEL: During the U.S. Open final, you let Djokovic crawl back from two sets down to force a fifth set. The match lasted nearly five hours, and one of the games had a 54-shot rally. How do you keep your concentration when points go that long? Do you ever let your mind wander to, say, whether your Jaguar needs an oil change?
MURRAY: Yeah, when you're in the middle of rallies of that length, you kind of zone out a bit. But then you hear the crowd and your legs start to burn, and that's when you know it's getting long. That rally in particular I remember pretty well -- it was unbelievable. Both of us were hurting big time afterward. But I'm getting used to playing against Novak. Every time we play each other, the rallies seem to go on forever.

ASSAEL: You're 25 years old now and playing in an era when conditioning is just off the charts. But a lot of people wonder whether Rafael Nadal's knees will ever be 100 percent again, and you needed to take painkilling injections in your back prior to the French Open. Is tennis becoming like the NFL, where the average career span is going to be six years or so?
MURRAY: I don't think so. You need to remember that Rafael got to No. 2 in the world when he was 19, and he's now 26 years old. He's been among the top two or three players in the world for like eight years. His style is incredibly physical, maybe more so than anyone who's played the game before. And yet he's still managed to stay at the top. Roger's obviously been able to do it for a very long time too. Novak's been at the top of the game for five or six years, and he doesn't look like he's slowing down. I think I'll be able to hang around for four or five or six more years.

Maybe what's different is that guys are taking longer to reach their peaks. I don't think you'll see someone like Rafael winning slams at the age of 19 now. Look at the number of teenagers in the top 100. I think there's maybe one. When I broke through, there were eight or nine guys around that age. The average age in the top 100 was 24 or 25. Now it's 27 or 28.

ASSAEL: But doesn't all that backcourt bashing take its toll?
MURRAY: Actually, the serve-and-volley game does a lot more damage. A lot of guys struggled to maintain their form at the top of the game when they were playing that way because it's a very explosive way of moving. You look at someone like Andre Agassi. He stayed at the top for 16 years [with a style that dictated points from the baseline]. But the serve-and-volley guys -- Patrick Rafter, Michael Stich, Richard Krajicek -- they had to stop playing a lot younger because that game is actually even more physical.

ASSAEL: Watching Novak now trying to defend all those world-ranking points, do you ever think that being No. 1 is overrated?
MURRAY: I think most players would love, at one stage in their career, to say, "I've been No. 1 in the world." But I've spoken to Roger about it and obviously Ivan [Lendl], and I have talked about it as well, and the focus really has to be on winning grand slams and winning tournaments. That's what their focus has been on rather than hanging on to the No. 1 ranking. If you get too desperate to hang on to No. 1, it means changing your schedule, maybe playing more events. If you have one or two bad tournaments, you have to start adding events onto your schedule. And that can affect you later in the year. It is amazing to think that after the year Novak had [in 2011], he'd already lost the No. 1 ranking five or six months into this season. It wasn't even like his year started badly. He won the Australian Open, got to the final at the French and got to the semis at Wimbledon. And he still lost the No. 1 ranking, even though he didn't lose but five or six times. Some would think that doesn't seem fair.

ASSAEL: You're coming up on your anniversary with Ivan Lendl as your coach, and he's been getting a lot of credit for opening up your forehand and getting you to meet the ball earlier. Is that his influence?
MURRAY: I've always worked on those things. But it's one thing to work on them in practice and another to actually want to go for it and take that chance when it comes to break point in the fifth set of a slam. That's more of a mindset thing that Ivan has spoken to me about before a lot of the big matches this year: "If you're going to lose, go down swinging. Don't go with your ass against the back fence, chasing down every ball." Getting me to make that happen in a match is what I credit him with.

ASSAEL: Is there something to be said for looking into your box and seeing that stony face looking back out at you?
MURRAY: Yeah, having someone in your box who has been there and knows exactly what you're going through -- mentally, physically, emotionally -- that's been a calming influence. He went through all of the same things as me in terms of losing a lot of big matches and slam finals, against John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors, and then finally managing to turn it around. There are so many similarities with how our careers started. I'm not promising that I'm going to finish my career like his, because that would be incredible.

ASSAEL: You know, you still talk to yourself a lot on the court.

ASSAEL: Actually, you curse a lot too. So much so that you were given a warning at the Rome Masters 1000 in May.
MURRAY: Obviously, me saying "s--" or whatever is bad and it's wrong, and it's something I want to try to stop doing. But it isn't as bad as some of the stuff that the foreign players come out with. I wouldn't want to name any names, but some of what they say is absolutely ghastly. It's just that all of the umpires speak English.

ASSAEL: You're a boxing nut. Bonus question: Pound-for-pound, Pacquiao or Mayweather?
MURRAY: Mayweather. I'd love to see them fight, and hopefully we will. They're both unbelievable. But Pacquiao makes more mistakes, and Mayweather capitalizes on mistakes better than anyone I've seen.

ASSAEL: You're spending December in Miami with Ivan. What are you two going to be working on?
MURRAY: Most of the stuff I want to work on is ways of shortening points. The transition of going from the back of the court to the net is something I could improve. I really want to shorten points by coming forward more, attacking my opponent's second serve more and improving my own second serve so I don't have to run as much. It's getting so physical -- if you're playing longer points, it's going to have an effect on the length of your career.

ASSAEL: Besides that, do you have a goal for next year?

MURRAY: To be honest, the next big goal is the Australian Open. I don't really look any further than that. And if I was to do well there, I'd give myself a shot in the early part of next year at maybe getting to No. 1.

Shaun Assael interviewed Andy Murray on Oct. 24, 2012. Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.