Under the palm trees of Indian Wells, Andy Murray slumped to a straight sets defeat to Canadian world number 129 Vasek Pospisil. Pospisil is no slouch around the court, having previously reached the quarter-finals of Wimbledon and claimed a doubles Grand Slam title alongside Jack Sock, but make no mistake: it was Murray’s match to lose. Coming off the back of his first title in Dubai the previous week, the Briton had seemingly put his up and down start to the season behind him; one that had seen him reach the final in Doha, before suffering a surprise fourth-round defeat at the Australian Open, and taking a few weeks off to recover.
It is not the first time that Murray has struggled to find his top form in the Californian desert. Since 2011, he has only got past the fourth round of the tournament on just two occasions. While these difficulties have often been attributed to fatigue following a busy start to the season, made up of Australian Open finals, Davis Cup commitments and, last year, the birth of his daughter, there were no such obvious issues this time around. He had plenty of time to rest following an early exit in Australia, he skipped a Davis Cup tie in Canada to focus on the next section of the season and, despite a bout of shingles, was in fine health.
The question about Murray’s mental condition is then one that comes into harsher light. He is in a new and unknown period of his career where he is being hunted, rather than doing the hunting. As world number one, expectations are raised, pressures intensified, and targets elevated. That is not to say that the goals and expectations for the man from Dunblane were lacking during his time as world number two, with the British public and media often wresting their hopes on his personal successes. But, as John McEnroe has pointed out, it is lonely at the top when you are the one everyone else is gunning for.
Having reached the pinnacle of the sport, is his motivation fading? It seems a dubious assessment of a man who has regularly spoken of his desire to win multiple Grand Slams. Unlike in other sports, the greatest players are measured by the number of major tournaments they win, and not the length of time they sit atop of the weekly rankings, although they often coincide with one another. While Novak Djokovic has openly admitted to struggling in the wake of claiming the French Open last year – a victory which saw him complete a career Grand Slam – the motivations for Murray should be remaining as strong as ever, as he looks to add to his haul of three major titles.
In reality, a lacklustre start to 2017 is not enough to cause panic among fans or Murray himself. He has struggled before in this period, and entering Australia as the favourite meant that anything other than the title would have been seen as a failure. His closest rival in the rankings, Djokovic, is also struggling, meaning that Murray will likely remain world number one at least until the French Open in May.
He’s been in this situation before, and so have we. He will find a way, and while an early loss is not ideal, it is far from the end of the world.
Image courtesy of Marianne Bevis