Saturday, 3 October 2009

Take a Wrist, Andy! How Murray can come back better than ever.

The best players are distinguished not just by what they do on the court, but by the work they put in off it. Andy Murray can use his enforced lay-off to protect his wrist and come back a more complete player.

Ace conditioning

Roger Federer's fitness programme has become legendary in the game as experts marvel at his longevity and resistance to injury and admire in ever higher definition the technical perfection of his game.

Rafael Nadal not only forged the most formidable physique ever seen in tennis, but transformed his style and hitting trajectory to triumph over his rival on the grass of Wimbledon and Melbourne's hard courts.

Novak Djokovic was first held up as an example to Andy Murray, as the promising young Briton suffered repeated attacks of cramp, then written off as a quitter who had failed to keep up with the game's physical demands after retiring from several successive Grand Slam matches.

Andy Murray himself has undergone a dramatically impressive transformation from lanky hopeful to cast-iron contender through a vigorous and varied training programme.

Bullied off the court

Murray has now found his Grand Slam progress curtailed by issues beyond simple conditioning. He has three times this year found himself out-powered by players in inspirational hitting form: Fernando Verdasco in Australia, Fernando Gonzalez at Roland Garros, and Andy Roddick at Wimbledon. Against Marin Cillic he simply flopped, and admitted as much.

Each time he has pronounced himself happy with his performance on the day and his game in general. While fans must accept that Federer and Nadal have been almost unique in their dominance, there is only so long Murray can keep losing these matches and using his opponents' exceptional form as an excuse. He has now gone into two or three majors in exceptional form himself and failed to win.

While he nurses his wrist injury Andy Murray must consider these matches to identify why he lost and how he can win those games next year. Here is my verdict.

Wrist care

The left wrist so crucial to the 22-year-old's prize backhand is prone to tendinitis and needs managing in a way the rest of his body does not. He has dismissed his latest lay-off as "just" tendinitis, but wrist problems kept him out for months the season before last and are now sidelining him when he has serious ranking points to defend.

Murray's medical team must find ways to nurse this Achilles Heel through the most arduous spells in the calendar—the spring clay-court months and the American hard-courts of summer, when big tournaments come thick and fast.

Certain supplements can encourage tendon growth and repair, while the wrist should be iced and compressed regularly after playing, even when it seems healthy. The variation of the single-handed backhand also takes pressure off the left forearm. Finally, it may be necessary to create specific warm up and cool down exercises for the wrist to keep it healthy.

Beef up the forehand

Murray's two-handed backhand is a formidable weapon, but perhaps one he relies on two much, choosing to target opponents' weaker wing in gruelling cross-court exchanges. All his main rivals possess more potent forehands, and Murray struggles to close out points in slower conditions.

Federer's flowing forehand allows him to step into the court and dominate rallies early on, then deliver the killer blow with ruthless efficiency and power. Nadal's heavily top-spun left-hander has exposed chinks in his rival's game when it looked on the verge of perfection, while Juan Martin Del Potro's long, bludgeoning swings demolished Federer in the US Open final last month.

Murray must use his left-sided lay-off to turn his forehand into a fearsome weapon, just as Justine Henin did a few years ago when she realized the most beautiful backhand ever to grace the game would not match the power of her opponents.

Technical change

Henin achieved this partly through a brutal bulking-up process, but also by stepping into the ball and making a firmer, flatter contact to batter it back into the far corner of the court.

Murray appears to lean backwards and hit round the back and top of the ball, which results in a more looping trajectory—safer and easier to control, perhaps, but lacking in venom. Just see in the picture above how his left hand is tucked awkwardly into his body and he leans sideways and back to strike the ball.

The New York Times recently showcased graphics that demonstrate Federer's perfect transfer of force through his body from his feet to his upper body:

His British rival looks a mess by comparison, approaching the ball more front-on, chest facing the court without the same upper-body rotation of the Swiss's swinging arms or the long levers of Del Potro's extended limbs.

Moving forward

Where Federer leaps up off his right foot to launch himself upwards and forwards, the overwhelming dynamic of Murray's stroke is a rocking back motion that sets him on his heels as if always a fraction late on the shot.

This would have the added advantage of combating his tendency to play off the metaphorical back foot, committing him to step into the ball when he might otherwise resort to a cagey table-tennis style of spin and control.

If such surgery seems impossibly or unnecessarily radical, we should note how significantly the Scot's serve has been upgraded this year and remember that the man from Dunblane has left no drop of sweat unshed in his hunger for success.

Andy Murray can do this, but he must do it now or he risks stalling for longer than his wrist holds him back.