Andy Murray smiles when asked if he thinks it’s true – or not – that Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, “don’t particularly like each other”, as the Serb’s coach, Boris Becker, asserts in a new book that has already disturbed the rhododendrons in SW19.
“If you compare to what it was like beforehand [in the game generally], when those two see each other, they say: ‘Hi.’ and shake hands and have a little chat,” Murray says. “Whether they like each other or not, I’m not really bothered about that, but people like to create [stories] that these people really hate each other.
“Before, it was genuine [in the McEnroe-Connors-Lendl era] and now people just create that hatred for no reason. I don’t think any of the players hate each other but some still get on better with some than others. There’s a lot of respect between all of them. Whether they go out to dinner together is a different story …”
There is a widely shared view in the game that a booking for two at San Remo for Messrs Federer and Djokovic is highly unlikely. It is also accepted that Murray has no problems with Federer or Rafa Nadal but there is a suspicion that he is at least serially irritated by some of Djokovic’s gamesmanship, most notoriously in the final of the Australian Open this year, and briefly in this month’s semi‑final at Roland Garros – although the Scot was at pains the second time to downplay a rift.
As Nadal has said, there is little profit in it for a player to have a running feud with someone who is a regular rival, as it creates unnecessary tension away from the court.
Still, the 2015 Wimbledon championship already has another dimension, a spark yet to be ignited, between the best player in the world and the one who was just that for so long and is now the game’s the game’s 33-year-old grand seigneur.
Perhaps the row, imagined or not, has achieved what Becker intended when he asked in his book: “So, should these two role models be more openly aggressive? Is it good for tennis that they maintain this dignified respect that covers up for any antipathy?”
As Djokovic’s coach, one would imagine Becker is speaking from at least an informed platform. It was, nonetheless, a real eyebrow lifter that rippled through the locker room all the way up to Federer, father of four and darling of millions, who thought Becker impertinent to make such a suggestion.
As the draw dictates, it is a “row” that could be settled on court only in the final, as they are charging at each other from different sides of the draw.
Murray, meanwhile, has much to distract him: an opening round match against Mikhail Kukushkin, the 58th-ranked Kazakh he has beaten twice, the last time for the loss of three games in two-and-a-bit sets before a retirement in the third round of the 2012 Australian Open.
The world No3, seeded third behind Djokovic and Federer, will never have arrived at Wimbledon in better shape, physically and mentally. It is a wonder, when he looks back, that he won the title in 2013 with a back held together by painkillers and bloody-mindedness. He grimaced through his triumph then; he allows himself the occasional smile now.
“It was hard for a few reasons [after Ivan Lendl left his team in March last year]. Changing coaches is tough, but coming back from surgery I found hard as well.
“My back still hurt after the surgery. I thought at the time: ‘You have the surgery and when you start again you might struggle for a little while but then you’re body would feel OK.’ For me, it wasn’t the case. My back still hurt and I was worried about that as well. When I won Wimbledon, it was great and that does make you happy.
“But a lot of the time I was playing I was in pain. So I wasn’t enjoying practising. I wasn’t hating tennis, and I don’t know if resentful is the right word but, when I stepped on the court, it was causing me pain – and I wasn’t actually enjoying that.
“Now, I love practising, love going in the gym, love training hard. For a while when I was having problems with my back, I wasn’t enjoying it.
“Also, I was just getting a better perspective on things: that tennis isn’t the only thing. You don’t have to win every single week – because, if you go in with that mindset, you’re never happy. If you expect to win every week then, when you do win, well, that’s what you expected. Whereas if you just lower the expectations a little bit, it makes you enjoy the game a bit more.”
A more philosophical Murray also looks a more dangerous one. He is in blinding form, carrying his new-found confidence on clay over to the grass in spectacular fashion at Queen’s last week, when he beat such a variety of styles on one day in Viktor Stoicki and then Kevin Anderson to win his fourth Aegon Championship title that he was giving a masterclass across all the disciplines.
Now, though, he steps up to the bigger stage. And there it is invariably a discussion between the Big Four, however slightly diminished that brand is. Is it changing irrevocably? “I wouldn’t say it’s quite the same as it was,” Murray says. “At different stages, people wanted to write [us off] ... apart from Novak – he hasn’t really had any injuries or dips in form.
“Roger for a while [did], like the year he lost to Stakhovsky at Wimbledon, and when the US Open was over for him as well. Rafa, just now, a lot of people are saying he isn’t the same and he is not going to come back. I had the same thing last year as well.
“There are more guys who can win now, for sure. It’s definitely a lot more open than what it was. But I don’t think that any one of the guys you mention are close to being done at the top level. But guys catch up.”
In that context, was there any professional warmth directed towards Stan Wawrinka, one of the game’s nice guys, when he upset Djokovic to win the French Open? “I don’t know,” Murray says. “I hadn’t really thought about it that way. Maybe psychologically for the Tour it was important. I remember in Rome earlier in the year, they had a players’ draw outside the locker room and, before the tournament had even started, someone had just written Djokovic’s name in the winner’s space.
“Stan winning in the final was a huge upset but also showed in those matches that Novak can be beaten. Granted, Stan played an incredible match, but it can be done.”
There can be little doubt that Becker has ensured that one player as much as any of the young pretenders will be straining at the edge of his age‑refined talent to do it again if he gets the opportunity and take an eighth Wimbledon title.
Performance training brand Under Armour supports Andy Murray. For more information visit www.underarmour.com
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