Andy Murray’s Inner Game of Tennis

July 9, 2013 11:00 am

The following article was originally published exactly one year before Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory. An interesting comparison to the Murray of previous years to the now British champion.

In 1974 Timothy Gallwey finished writing a book called The Inner Game of Tennis. Both publisher and author had limited expectations. They felt confident it would sell, but not in huge numbers. They were wrong. Within weeks it was top of the New York Times bestsellers and had sold 100 times the initial print run. The book itself has become a cult classic of sorts, a curious mixture of humanistic psychology and Zen philosophy applied to the very un-Zen world of tennis. It has remained in print ever since. There was, as it turned out, a mammoth appetite for this new approach – a guide to the mental side of tennis. It was the unleashing of a then obscure and oft ignored science that has since become fundamental to the preparations of any professional athlete. It was the first widely acknowledged piece of sports psychology.

The premise of the book seems obvious enough. Every game of tennis is made up of two separate games. The outer game – the serve and volley, the forehand drives and the backhand slices that make up the cut and thrust of any tennis match – and the neglected but equally fundamental inner game. Whilst the technical skill and athleticism of tennis players is often incredible to watch, the effect they have, like the shots themselves, last only for a moment. We are stunned by the outer game, but rarely enthralled.

It is the inner game that can make tennis so fascinating to watch – the ebb and flow of momentum from one player to another and the battle of wills that is played out between them. The great eras of men’s tennis are defined by their rivalries –McEnroe and Borg, Agassi and Sampras and more recently Federer and Nadal. The drama that so grips spectators comes from the shifting tides between two great players. All of these rivalries have been played out in a great Wimbledon final.

The Inner Game of Tennis explores this side of the game – a game entirely separate from technique and technicalities. But it goes deeper than the will to beat your opponent. It examines a separate match against not just your opponent but: ‘lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-condemnation’ – In short, a game within yourself.

That last point, self-condemnation brings things to the talented, determined, frustrating and self-berating figure of Andy Murray. He is back again to gamely participate in the traditional oh so nearly of summer in SW19. Every year a British player stands on the edge of irrational and unbounded national adoration. Every year, for 76 years now, they have failed. Andy Murray has been close enough to get our hopes up, but for 3 consecutive years the semi and no further. Perhaps though this year will be different.

No one suggests that Murray does not have the physical or technical ability to win Wimbledon. He is one of the fittest, fastest and most athletic men on the tour. The problem for Murray has always been mental. His problem has been, up until recently, a relentless self-flagellation. Every shot is judged as either good or bad, and when it’s bad, it starts a downward spiral of frustration and childish petulance – as well as the kind of agonised facial contortions that only the Scottish are capable of.

One of the central tenets of The Inner Game of Tennis is the abandonment of these self-judgements. Forgetting a shot as either good or bad and simply seeing it as it is. The Inner Game uses the analogy of a Rose:

‘When it first shoots up out of the earth, we don’t condemn it as immature and underdeveloped; nor do we criticise the buds for not being open when they appear…the rose is a rose from the time it is a seed to the time it dies. Within it, at all times, it contains its whole potential.’

A little lofty and nonsensical perhaps to compare Andy Murray to a rose but the sentiment remains. What Murray desperately needs is to be easier on himself. Murray has won more than he has lost against Roger Federer, arguably the greatest player of all time. Within him, at all times, lies that whole potential. He must stop competing so fiercely with himself. His coach, Ivan Lendl was hired with this in mind. Anyone who has watched Murray will have seen Lendl, unbelievably calm, totally unmoved by the emotions swirling around on court. In the quarterfinal he applauded one point. One.

It is this distance, this patience that Lendl is seeking to instil in Murray. Aggression yes, also but control of his emotions. He understands the agony of coming close, as Murray has, for sure – Lendl lost his first 4 Grand Slam finals – but having gone on to win eight grand slams he also knows how it feels, and what it takes, to win.

The question remains whether this has been successfully translated to Andy Murray. He has had a difficult draw this year and come through it well. He has beaten Jo-Wilfried Tsonga before and he is capable of beating him again. But there were flashes of the original, aggravated Andy Murray against David Ferrer in the quarterfinals – most notably when he punched himself in the face for missing a forehand. When it mattered though he held himself together and played brilliantly. One step at a time – next up Tsonga. Let’s hope he can hold it together. I think we’ve been through enough.

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