The Andy Murray problem

I posted a tweet about midway through the Australian Open men’s singles final accusing Andy Murray of being “unprofessional.” It was ironic, I later realized, because Murray has a reputation as one of the most diligent and dedicated of ATP pros. But my comment was a gut reaction to the way Murray was behaving during the match.

If you’ve ever been a spectator at a sanctioned junior tournament or even a high-level rec event, you’ve seen similar behavior. The screaming. The self-flagellation. The monologues, quad thumping and acid comments directed at everyone and no one in particular. Can you say “freak-out”?

But here Murray was, playing not in the town championships of Mudville but in the Australian Open final. And we thought Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic had made such histrionics seem, well, silly. Childish. Unprofessional.

Maybe I would see this differently if Murray had drawn energy and courage from his outbursts and gone on to win that final instead of losing 12 of the final 13 games -- a meltdown that happened to coincide with his most flagrant loss of self-control. Maybe I would see this differently if Murray had gone into the news conference after Djokovic knocked him out and admitted he lost control, instead of accusing Djokovic of sandbagging.

Maybe I would see this differently if I could just pass off Murray’s actions as a testament to the glorious individualism of the game -- or even as a doomed, romantic blow struck for what Jimmy Connors might describe as old-fashioned “showmanship.” The stuff that, according to Connors, gets folks juiced about tennis.

But I can’t see this differently.

I do believe that in some ways Murray’s conduct reflects an otherwise admirable determination to remain true to himself. Say what you want about Scots, but they are rarely accused of being “phony” or overly eager to please. And it’s also true that Murray’s game, lethal as it can be, has a do-it-yourself quality. That he’s a multiple Grand Slam champion with a DIY game (a quality evident in both his stroke production and his overall approach to strategy and tactics) is a tribute to his unique talent and desire. Give him some breathing room, let Andy Murray be Andy Murray.

But as seductive as some of these rationalizations and their implications are, the bottom line is that Murray made a hash of his most recent Grand Slam opportunity. An awful, embarrassing mess.

Going into the final, pundits of all stripes were touting his (once again) newly aggressive game. He logged a masterful win over Tomas Berdych in a semifinal that had all the overtones of grudge match. (Imagine, Berdych had the nerve to hire Danny Vallverdu, the coach whom Murray had fired!) Murray also was being hailed as an enlightened kind of guy for having a female coach -- as if he had hired former Grand Slam champion Amelie Mauresmo in that capacity because of his social conscience.

Hardly 48 hours later, all that was left for his boosters to cling to was his loyalty to Mauresmo -- a fealty that will be rigorously tested if Murray, who’s back up to No. 4 in the rankings, can’t make greater inroads against an aging Federer, an increasingly banged-up Nadal or the player who is his natural-born rival, Djokovic. The win in Melbourne put Djokovic ahead 16-8 and 5-2 in their meetings at majors.

Djokovic was born just a week after Murray, and the two have been compadres since their days as junior rivals -- details that made Murray’s suggestion that Djokovic engaged in gamesmanship in their recent meeting particularly biting. That Djokovic chose to take the high road instead of firing back at Murray made the loser’s grapes seem particularly sour.

Murray played in Rotterdam this week but lost to Gilles Simon in straight sets Friday. Before he was ousted, Murray tried to walk back his comments about Djokovic. "Everything has been made out to be much bigger than what it was," Murray told reporters. Implying that the controversy was blown out of proportion, he added, "That happens all the time these days."

Well, the official transcripts are there for all to see. And at the end of the day, Murray’s comments did serve to take attention away from his lack of self-control during the final. John P. McEnroe’s reputation as the only elite player who managed to play better after going ballistic remains safe for now.

The cold truth is that Murray screwed up in a big way. He had a great draw, facing just two top-10 players en route to the final, mentally fragile Berdych (No. 7) and wet-behind-the-ears No. 10 Grigor Dimitrov. (They have exactly one Grand Slam final appearance between them.)

Granted, Djokovic in Melbourne is about as tough an assignment as you can imagine (Nadal in Paris being the only exception), so I can feel for Murray. But I don’t believe Murray is especially interested in earning my sympathy; he’s interested in earning more Grand Slam titles.

Judging by the way Murray handled the Australian Open final, his own emotions may present a formidable obstacle to his realization of that goal.