History will be unkind to Andy Murray, in fact it has already started to be. The famous ‘big four’ of Federer, Djokovic, Nadal and Murray became the big three almost as soon as Andy hobbled off centre court in 2017. It’s not really unfair either, whilst the other three sit on twenty or more grand slams, Murray’s three grand slam titles wont be enough for him to be remembered in the same light as the others, and that’s fair enough. Whilst many fans talk about how much he might have won had the other three not been there, less talk about why he didn’t win as many. It’s a little bit too simplistic to just say the others were simply better.
I say that because Murray was so close to the level of the others. His 81% wins in grand slam matches and 76% outside of the slams is extremely close to the other three players and is about 10% higher than the rest of the field. When you add his 46 titles, 21 grand slam semi finals, 11 grand slam finals, two Olympic gold medals and Davis Cup triumph into the mix along with his 3 Grand Slam titles, the bigger picture is brighter for Andy. My point is, for a period of around six years, Murray was extremely close to the level of the best three players of all time and was deservedly in the big four as it was known.
Murray’s grand slam record won’t be good enough to be remembered in the same way as his rivals.
The reason he didn’t win as much as the others might be more obvious now than it ever was. Murray’s serve was always a relative weakness. The first serve was slightly inconsistent but generally ok. His second serve however was a real weakness, it averaged at a lowly 85 mph and had around 800 rpm’s less than the likes of Federer‘s - meaning it didn‘t have a huge amount of spin on it either. In his prime the rest of his game was able to paper over the cracks to an extent, however with the fine margins at the top level there’s no doubt this let him down.
Murray‘s percentage of second serve points won on hard courts in his career is 51.73%, which places him 41st out of all current players. The other members of the big four sit at the top of the table amongst some of the best servers in the world. The players neighbouring Murray aren’t quite so impressive on the serving front. When you factor in the level of the rest of Murray’s game and that he’s 6’3, this makes for surprising reading. Whilst the other three are topping the charts Murray is slumming it down with Tim Smyczek (Apologies if you’re reading this Tim).
Nadal and Federer winning more second serve points than Isner and Opelka is frankly ridiculous.
So why couldn’t Murray just hit his second serve a bit harder or with a bit more spin? The answer lies in his core technique on his serve. John Yandell wrote a fantastic piece analysing the lack of rotation in his arm on his kick serve compared to Federer in particular. If you’re interested in the technical reasons of why Murray’s second serve struggled at the top level this is a must read:
To summarise the article, Murray’s technique was better suited to a slice than a kick serve. The issue was that it widely thought that the second serve should go into the opponents backhand as much as possible. For a right handed player like Murray, the kick serve is the best way to do this. The slice does the opposite, shaping the ball into the forehand of the opponent.
The core assumption that the second serve should go to the backhand appears to be flawed though, at least at the top level. Ironically it was Murray’s great rival, Novak Djokovic who started the trend of hitting the slice more on the second serve. It was his performance analyst and master statistician, Craig O’shannasy, who brought it to Novak‘s attention that he was winning more points serving to the T on the Ad court than out wide on the second serve. The more they worked on the slice second serve and the more he hit it in matches the more effective it became.
Novak’s serving placement and win percentages on the Ad Court in 2014.
Novak‘s serving placement and win percentages on the Ad Court in 2017.
Interestingly as Novak hit the slice serve more often, his overall win percentage on second serve points rose from 56.6 to an incredible 64.2 on the Ad Court. Just as interesting is that his wide serve numbers increased as well, most likely due to it now being less predictable. Whilst many have tried to theorise why it is more effective to serve to the forehand it doesn’t really matter, the stats show it is and the trend has caught on.
You wonder how it might have been different if Murray had been the trailblazer for the slice second serve, a serve which his technique suited more than the kick serve. The thing with the great players though, is more often than not they are the best because they are ahead of the rest of the game by a few years. Maybe Andy’s game was a bit too normal to be one of the greats? Maybe he just needed a better serve.