At the Toronto Farmers Tournament, an ATP ranking event, Andy Murray and Xavier Malisse both replicated patterns of play familiar to spectators who have followed their careers.
Murray versus Malisse, August 11th 2010. Murray started tentatively, waiting for his opponent to over-stretch, then dropped serve, continued to struggle with first serve percentages, and seemed unable to cope with the weight of the Malisse shots. Malisse, [image above from wikipedia] who had been showing good form in the run-up to the tournament, appeared confident and threatened to overwhelm Murray. Murray scrambled and frustrated Malisse who failed to convert the break and a set-point. Murray grabs the set and starts to play better. Malisse starts to play worse. Murray wins the second set easily to progress to the third round. In statistical terms, Murray has achieved more success as a professional tennis player than Malisse. Currently No 4, he has reached as high as No 2 ranked player in the world. But there are signs that neither player is meeting the expectations either of themselves or of their fans.
Breaking old patterns of play
There are explanations for Murray’s performance. But there is a more disturbing perspective from which it might be concluded that both players will remain with unfulfilled ambitions unless they find ways of breaking out of the old patterns of play. Both are regarded as exceptionally gifted players naturally. Murray is now repeated described as the most talented player around who has not won a grand slam. Malisse is a little like the veteran Tommy Haas, another two promising talents who never quite got to when they should have in Tennis.
Why the expectations gap?
We have examples of players who demonstrate a principle of all viable systems from stable combinations of atoms to stable systems of planets, with stable systems of organisations and humans in between. A viable system replicates actions (behaviours in humans and other animals) which define its functions and relationships with its wider environment. In human development terms we go on doing what we have always done, demonstrating what is meant by personality and competences. Training may help sort out potential distortions to the basic pattern. This in sport as in other walks of life is helped by sensitive coaching.
Nevertheless, under stress, older patterns of action come to the surface. In the homely terms of a well-known personal development adage, “if you always do what you’ve always done you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” According to the adage, and viable systems theory, Murray will under stress revert to a rather timid style that will not succeed enough to win grand slams. Malisse will win some great matches against higher-ranked opponents, but will also struggle to reach tournament finals.
Is it all pre-ordained?
Now that’s the big question. If it means “will Murray win a grand slam?” or “will Murray ever get to World No 1?” I am not as confident as I was a year ago when he seemed to be ironing out weaknesses in his game. Now I’m not sure I know the answer to either question.