Andy Murray, Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

What do you do when everyone can hear the voices in your head?
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When Andy Murray started doing it isn’t clear, but it became noticeable, at least to me, during his recent run to the 2015 Australian Open final against Novak Djokovic. It, the gesture, is not a signature of his. Others in his sport and in other sports have used it and will continue to use it. And, when they do so, it will never be as homage to greatness. Rather it will be unconscious and in the moment.

What I’m talking about are those moments, when in this year’s Open, Murray raised his index finger—straightened it into a stamp of authority—and pressed it to his temple. Sometimes, while doing this with a gaze both manic and confident, he ventured so far as to mouth the word, smart, to himself or the crowd or his box—who knows? But, in slow motion, he even appeared to be enunciating the word with two syllables. And, despite all the confidence seemingly wrapped up in this newfound gesture of his, it being a good thing is still up for debate. After all, Andy Murray—Olympic gold medalist, winner of Wimbledon, and U.S. Open champion—appears to be in constant communication with voices. And this statement of intelligence appears to be his assertion of dominance against those voices.

Upon first glance, they appear to come from his box, where his mother, his fiancé, his coach, and his friends all gather in support, trying to encourage him. To talk to him. When his unforced errors start to mount in big moments and the ball off his racquet lands with a greater frequency in the net, they offer advice. But Andy yells, “That’s not helping!” Or something like that, transforming himself from Scottish warrior and tennis upstart into British brat and avatar of colonial ineptitude. In these moments, it’s hard to perceive him as a finished prodigy. In these moments, frustration wears him thin and the work becomes too evident for his game’s beautiful flashes to be just that. Instead, beauty becomes practice, and Andy’s game transforms into an act of contortion.

He’s always battled this image, always raged against his doubts and his worries. Any hubris he might possess is a hammer banging against an inner criticism of the worst kind: Homer would have written over such flaws with the poetic arc of real tragedy. But Andy Murray is not written so large as an epic poem. He is short story small. He is Raymond Carver’s typewriter keys. He is a drunken, blustering rattle. He often vanquishes these demons, but not in Australian Open finals and not against Novak Djokovic, at least not recently. And so he yells and then he yells some more, but I don’t think he’s truly yelling at his supporters, whether they are friend, family, or fan. No, Andy Murray is yelling at the voices that only he can hear.

***

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman opens with a shot of Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomas levitating. All the audience sees is his bare back. He wears nothing but tighty-whiteys. This could be embarrassing, except he’s levitating. At times, when Andy Murray’s winning, he is in this moment of exposed levitation.

He still talks to himself. He is still drawn to anger. But the anger is noble confidence and the words are certain his actions will find results. Fist pumps are delivered and held in long classical poses of triumph. And, for the first two sets last Sunday, this Andy Murray battled Novak Djokovic, pointed to his head and mouthed the word, smart, and the word seemed to fit. He appeared on the verge of a transcendent moment. Andy Murray winning Down Under, not in London, completing the third leg of a career Grand Slam. Andy Murray assuring everyone that Andy Murray is Andy Murray and that such a thing means something.

When he was down four games to one in the first set, he willed himself back into the match. And, in the second set tiebreak, the possibility that he could move objects, like tennis balls, with his mind appeared quite possible, for he ripped through Novak Djokovic. If the camera’s microphone had been able to pick up his voice, I’m sure that two-syllable proclamation of superior intelligence would have sounded a lot like the voice of Birdman speaking to Riggan Thomas in his dressing room. This moment lasted through the first two games of the third set, and then it began to unravel and then it unraveled some more.

By the time, the third set ended, Andy Murray appeared to be locked out of the theatre. He was running and stumbling through the streets of Melbourne, exposed and vulnerable. He was easy to hate because this is not what tennis champions are supposed to do. Novak Djokovic’s eighth Grand Slam victory proved as much.

When Djokovic made the mistake of holding onto his racquet in the first set—crushing his thumb underneath the force of his falling body—he picked himself up and won the set’s tiebreak. He was Icarus. But he was also resurrected. When he lost the second tiebreak and the first two games of the third set, he became more limber and more relaxed. He stretched and bounced—and struck the ball with more force than ever and circumvented the weariness and pain brought on by the match’s first two sets. Then, he won the last set six games to zero, and it was clear there is something different between these two men. Djokovic performs in ideals. And Andy, Andy does something else.

In his postgame interview, Novak Djokovic commented that during the third set he recalled the 2013 Australian Open final that pitted these same two players against one another. In that match, like this one, they played two epic sets at the start before Djokovic closed Murray out three sets to one. In comparing the results of two years ago to today, it seems safe to say that perhaps Andy, too, thought of that match and how he had disappeared in it. Of course, he responded by winning Wimbledon later in the season. No one knew it then, but his third defeat in an Australian Open final was but a preview to his second straight blockbuster of a summer.

Who knows if he can mount such a landslide recovery again? After all, as he yelled at himself Sunday, he appeared to be sulking in the collective grief of every loss he’s ever experienced. Andy Murray, it seems, cannot break free from his past. Moreover, his past, at times, feels devoid of accomplishment, or at least plays out that way in his head and, subsequently, in front of everyone watching. Despite his successes, his losses and feelings of inadequacy appear to be what surfaces, haunting him in his most isolated moments on the court, which are, of course, never really isolated, but public exhibitions.

When he stalks himself back and forth on the baseline, playing defensive, uninspired tennis, it’s hard not to think that he’s defending himself against something other than his opponent. Perhaps he hears harsh, inarticulate laughter and responds in kind with harsh, biting barbs. Almost all tennis players curse and mutter at themselves from time to time because so much of their sport relies on perfecting the body’s relationship with the precision and accuracy of geometry and physics. But Murray’s yelling exposes a kind of deep, and deeply self-obsessed, madness. He comes across as not just wanting to win but as tormented by both the concept and its alternative. And, then, as if embarrassed, he vanishes as if in the height of his ambition he has truly revealed something shameful.

A tennis player is never quite done, almost always ascending or descending; arriving or departing. “Prodigy” is tossed around when players are in their teens, marking work as unnecessary and making maturation into a destiny. And, when players arrive, especially great players, they achieve the ultimate illusion by faking constancy. Could the descent of Federer have gone any slower? Until he loses a French Open outright, is Nadal ever really not Nadal? Was there ever a time when Novak Djokovic was something less than an irresistible force? Andy Murray is often mentioned as a fourth addition to tennis’ triumvirate, but he is not like these other players. He is almost always, with the exception of one glorious turn of the calendar, on the rise and in need of not just validation but something akin to love and adoration. Andy Murray, as Andy Murray, is incomplete. If he could only act on his talent without thinking, the vanity and audacity that propels an individual to carry out his ambitions might be hidden. Instead, Andy leaves the door to his dressing room wide open, and his supporters and critics see him not levitating but breaking shit.

Such truth, in moments of defeat, is, if anything, insanely honest, requiring equal parts courage and cowardice. And, in the arc of Andy’s career, there appears to be both convergence and disintegration; a window’s ledge and a wonderful amount of inflight anguish.


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