The brother of Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, and co-founder of the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Barcelona where Andy Murray spent three of his teenage years, regards the Scot’s achievements at the top end of the sport with immense pride.
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Murray has lost nine of the 20 matches he has contested since reaching the Australian Open final in January, enough of a blip, Sanchez feels, to see the upward trajectory of his progress start to flatline. It is the kind of crisis point where the truly great players dig deeper into their reserves and find a way to take that next, elusive step forward. Ever since the headstrong 13-year-old Murray passed his informal entrance exam for the academy by routing him 6-3, 6-1, the Scot has had Sanchez convinced of his ability to find all of these answers. The Spaniard just wonders how severely that precious confidence of his has been damaged in the interim.
“In the last month it feels like he is flatlining, like his progress has been flat, but that is something that happens to all the great players, their graph never grows steadily, it is like the stock market,” said Sanchez, whose last meeting with the Scot came at the ATP Masters event in Barcelona. “Sometimes it stays still, then you have to dig deeper, and go up another level. It is only at the end, when you look at it over a longer term, that you can see that it has been a steady line upwards.
“Andy has to realise if he wants his line to continue going up or whether he has had enough. This is what we don’t know. Whether he is really willing to work hard, and go on to the next level, which is winning the Slams. Maybe he says he wants to achieve more, but inside he thinks ‘I have had enough’. Because that happens sometimes. If you don’t still have the drive then it will show and he will slowly go down the way.
“He really has to be more hungry and be more consistent. To do that he has to start to make the next step in his game which – in my humble opinion, and what I would suggest if I was closer to him – would be to try to make him more aggressive as a player. I would like him to be much more aggressive with his serve and be more inside the court, and be in the transition area much more often. The grass court will help him because there are not many players playing well on grass. I just hope all those defeats in the worst part of the year don’t affect his pride, what he feels inside.”
Murray has grown up a lot from the teenager who landed on Sanchez’s doorstep a decade ago, his family – with a little help from sponsors such as RBS – paying £25,000-a-year plus competition costs for the privilege. But the Spaniard still feels further personal development is required. The assemblage of Team Murray has been widely credited for curbing the previous excesses of the Scot’s temperament, but Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer still seem like zen masters by comparison.
“I don’t think this fighting against the world helps him,” Sanchez said. “I think he has to try to be more relaxed. If he really wants to challenge these guys and win then he can’t be fighting against everything because you spend too much gasoline. He has to be more calm and just enjoy what he has got.
“Some days he is fine, but some days he is not fine. At that level it is all about the mind, your soul. Doing this professionally, and being so lucky, you cannot be angry. Other people have to work on the land, or on the farm. You have to value what you have. Then, at the important moments of the match, he will remember what he has to do, and he won’t think about all the fights. He has to find his peace to focus on the sport.”
There was nothing average about Murray’s average day at the academy. It involved tennis training from 9 am to noon, fitness from noon to 1pm, lunch from 1pm to 2pm, school 2pm to 4pm, more tennis from 4.30pm to 6pm, then more school from 6pm to 8pm. His time in Spain saw him briefly experience problems with his diet, decide through experience not to drink alcohol, make lifelong friends such as Venezuelan Davis Cup player Dani Valverdu, but only learn a smattering of Spanish. One of Sanchez’s biggest problems was stopping the teenage Murray playing football.
“Most of the young kids, with such a big discipline, struggle in different ways,” the former world No 7 said. “I remember we had to go after him to do certain things, but this we do with all the kids. He was pretty good but always they like the fun things. He always loved the soccer, he loved Barca, and always loved to go and play soccer. But sometimes he was not so keen to do the more physical work. But this is normal with a 15-year-old.
“From the first moment when we played together I realised how difficult it would be to play against this kid when he was grown up, because he had these tools. When you were forcing him to the side of the court he always seemed to have an answer for it. The best way for me to tell how good a player is to play with them. Then you see that they are able to come out with solutions.”
Sanchez was on a whistle-stop tour of the UK last week, doing coaching seminars and outreach work for the academy. He saw incremental improvements in the standard of young player coming through compared to his last visit, but – as a consultant to the Brazilian tennis federation as they attempt to reshape their development programmes – he remains critical of many aspects of the tennis culture in the UK. Not the least of these is the peculiar hysteria that grips middle England when Wimbledon approaches and Britain begins the feverish search for its first winner there since 1936.
“This English pressure is always difficult,” Sanchez said. “When you are in other countries this doesn’t happen. He has newspapers and TV looking at him and there is so much will from the English people to win a slam. I was always amazed when Tim Henman every year would make the semi-final at Wimbledon, [four semi-finals, and four quarter-finals] at the time of [Pete] Sampras and [Andre] Agassi. What the guy was doing was outstanding. They should have made a monument to him, but they never valued him. That always made me angry. Hopefully Andy can have a run like Tim, once he wins one it will become a lot easier.”
Another growing pain Murray experienced in Barcelona was being diagnosed with a bipartite patella, a childhood injury which he has had to manage throughout his career and which has flared up again this season. Sanchez, Spanish Davis Cup captain when they won the trophy in 2008, minus the injured Rafa Nadal, has seen his countryman put similar injury problems behind him.
“I don’t know how bad [Nadal’s] knee is at the moment, but these guys win because they have a small difference over the others,” Sanchez said. “So when they have a problem like that the small difference disappears and it can be frustrating. In 2008, more than whatever injuries he had, at that time he [Nadal] was completely exhausted. He had become No 1, he had won Roland Garros and he won Wimbledon and he had won the Olympics. Then he lost in the US Open, and he didn’t have any more gasoline. Rafa cannot complain, because he has the best physical body in the sport. Even if he has the problem with his knee he has the longest endurance, he is the fastest and most explosive about the court. He has a body that even when a match goes over two hours keeps its own power while the level of the others will go down.”
As for this year’s Wimbledon, the Barcelona branch of the Murray fan club hopes for the best. The 23-year-old has appeared in two of the last seven finals, made the semi-finals at SW19 last year and “is there” in the list of contenders, albeit somewhat behind Nadal and Roger Federer. The big question mark is whether he still thinks his name is on that trophy. “I think that he will finish where he believes he can finish,” Sanchez says.