Andy Murray - Sony Ericsson Open

At first glance, the scorekeeper appeared to have committed an egregious error.  A fortnight after falling to Donald Young in Indian Wells, world #5 Andy Murray had toppled to the even more anonymous qualifier Alexander Bogomolov, Jr.  But in fact the egregious errors here all belonged to the Australian Open runner-up, who has repeated his alarming 2010 dive after finishing second at the season’s first major.  Like Murray, the WTA runner-up in Melbourne has failed to win a match since her breathtaking January surge.  Peering over the barriers that surround this disaster scene, we consider the how, why, when, where, and what of the dual implosion.

How did it unfold? Just as he had in his previous two Slam finals, Murray crumbled under the pressure of expectations against a sparkling Djokovic who probably would have conquered him anyway.  Burdened by both the disappointment and a wrist injury, the world #5 then squandered a double-break advantage against Baghdatis in Rotterdam and struggled to hold serve throughout the match.  Not until Indian Wells did his malaise fully blossom, though, with a straight-sets loss to #143 Donald Young in which the Scot showed little positive body language and less conviction behind his strokes.  (Young then would collect just four games from Robredo in the next round.)  Normally renowned for consistent technique, Murray extended this deflating trend at the year’s second Masters 1000 event by holding serve only three times in an even more ghastly and error-strewn defeat.

Whereas her ATP counterpart has lost nine consecutive sets, Li Na has positioned herself to win in all but one of her losses during her current five-match skid.  At the close of her historic Melbourne run, she stood within ten points of a maiden Grand Slam title before succumbing to the heavily favored Clijsters.  Holding quadruple match point against Wickmayer in Dubai a match later, Li surrendered six consecutive points at that stage to drop a second-set tiebreak and faded sharply in the third set.  After she won just three games from the unimposing Zakopalova in Doha, the Melbourne finalist appeared to have stabilized when she captured the first set from Peng in Indian Wells.  This appearance deceived, however, as Li spiraled downward with accelerating velocity in the second half of that match.  A ferocious comeback against world #78 Johanna Larsson in Miami brought her to the brink of victory with three more match points, but she spurned those opportunities as well as a 4-0 advantage in the deciding tiebreak.

Na Li Na Li of China looks on between games in her women's final match against Kim Clijsters of Belgium during day thirteen of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 29, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.Why did it happen? As the contrasting manner of their losses suggests, Murray and Li can attribute their slumps to divergent sources.  Confirmed in his inferiority complex by yet another disappointing performance in a major final, the Scot sagged from depleted self-esteem and self-belief during his ensuing tournaments.  The lack of confidence surfaced in the mostly meek nature of his losses, during which he exerted little effort in reversing the tide against him.  By contrast, Li probably suffered a hangover from the euphoria of her unprecedented breakthrough, becoming the first Asian woman to reach the final of a major.  She may have experienced a degree of disappointment after failing to capitalize upon her early momentum against Clijsters, but the tight scorelines of her losses suggest less a generally pervasive disillusionment—as do Murray’s straight-setters—than a sporadic lack of concentration at crucial moments.

When and where might they recover? Unlikely to excel on the surface least friendly to his style, Murray probably will wallow through a woeful clay season before rejuvenating himself in his home nation as he did in 2010.  Despite the pressure of his compatriots at Wimbledon, the Scot repeatedly has collected himself there after stumbles on the European continent.  Always a threat during the US Open Series, Murray surely will have quelled the memories of his Melbourne disappointment by that stage.  More broadly, the Scot still has several years ahead to showcase , not a luxury available to the WTA runner-up.

More competent on red dirt than the Scot, Li Na nearly reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros two years ago and thus could revitalize her form more swiftly.   While clay remains her weakest surface, the WTA features few dirt devils outside Schiavone following Henin’s retirement.  Outstanding in the grass season last year, Li should find that surface ideally suited to her darting groundstrokes and compact physique with a relatively low center of gravity.  At the not very tender age of 29, however, the Chinese star already has incurred a multitude of injuries that could emerge to haunt her without warning.   Li probably can look forward to no more than two or at most three more years as a contender, so she might approach her mission with greater urgency than will Murray.

What should we and they learn from it? First, Slams matter immensely more than even the most significant non-majors to players as well as the majority of commentators and spectators.  Far from moping around the court after an ignominious loss to Nadal in the 2009 Indian Wells final, for example, Murray stormed to the title in Miami two weeks later with a self-assured victory over Djokovic.  And no sense of complacency from winning titles in Birmingham and Sydney during the past twelve months afflicted Li Na at ensuing tournaments at Wimbledon and Melbourne.  Clearly, the elevated intensity associated with the majors influences not only the champions who win them consistently (see N for Nadal and W for Williams) but also some players who never have raised one of the sport’s four most prestigious trophies.  Mirroring the peaks and valleys of the calendar are the emotional peaks and valleys experienced by those who participate in this rollercoaster.

At the same time, Murray and Li both must cultivate the art of amnesia in order to maximize their potential. While players should celebrate accomplishments as they happen and have the right to bemoan bitter defeats, they also must maintain a sense of perspective from one week to the next.  The ATP #5 cannot continue to meander through months of tepid tennis while nursing his wounds from a single setback, nor can Li linger in the glow of yesterday’s glory.  Apt for this sport is Horace’s saying that “time flies” (tempus fugit).  In their exceptionally short careers, tennis stars have a limited window of opportunity to leave an impact.  Requiring most contenders to live in the present and plan for the future, that situation exacerbates the challenges confronting those who dwell too long in the past.

Etched on a wall at the All England Club is Kipling’s poem “If,” which offered timely consolation for Mahut after his epic Wimbledon loss to Isner.  The second couplet of the poem’s second stanza reminds its readers that fulfillment flows to those who “can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same.”

Such is the task that looms ahead for Murray and Li.

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