Andy Murray and Roger Federer: How role models work

January 18, 2009


Update note

Updated on the eve of Wimbledon, June 2009. Six months later, Murray had climbed to No 3 in the World. Federer had recently won The French Open fulfilling several personal goals. Murray has won the Pre-Wimbledon tournament at Queen’s club.

Nadal, last year’s Wimbledon winner pulls out, leaving Federer as favourite, Murray as No 2 seed. According to seeding they will meet in the final … [Update ends].

Andy Murray owes a lot to Roger Federer. Their relationship gives an insight into how role models work to sustain motivation in athletes who want to become No. 1.

In the first weeks of 2009, Andy Murray defeated Roger Federer twice on the way to winning two tennis tournaments.

Federer, who had been No. 1 has recently slipped to No. 2 and Murray climbed to No. 4 Federer is still regarded by many experts as the most complete tennis player of his generation. Yet Murray, the in-form young contender, was installed as favourite for the upcoming Australian grand-slam event.

Andy Murray like most (all?) top athletes has a fierce competitive drive. This may be triggered by some important events in childhood, and it is probably genetically determined, at least in part.

My contention is that motivational drive can become anchored and focused by the influence of a role model.

How a role model helps shape behavior

Sometimes the wannabe champion has feelings of admiration and awe towards to the former No.1. That seems to have been the case for John McEnroe. On court, when competing with Borg, Johnnie Mac was a paragon of well-behaved virtue. But the influence of the role model did not extend far beyond their few hours on court.

Murray has also been better behaved while playing Federer, and was closer to the rebellious McInroe when playing almost anyone else.

I speculated elsewhere that an athlete may admire someone for qualities they would like to possess, but feel they do not. My earlier example was from Cricket, and Boycott’s respect for the on-field persona of Pietersen, all flair and aggression, and a near identikit version of Boycott’s suppressed shadow self.

Murray and Federer

Andy Murray is arguably heir to McEnroe. Both were precocious brats as teenagers. McEnroe eventually became a much-loved senior citizen. Murray seems to be emerging from teenage bratdom although the aggressive and sometimes obnoxious side still simmers away not far from the surface.

And Murray admired Federer initially from afar. His view on the new No 1., Nadal is quite different (although he still has been less prone to uncontrolled outbursts in matches against Nadal). The two spent a lot of time togther as juniors.

Federer’s response to Murray’s victories

Federer now to cope with a tough challenge to his own self-esteem and self-belief that he is the best tennis player in the world. still No. 1 image. Roger, a most graceful person in public has had to struggle to acknowledge the progress Andy was making towards that top spot. Recently [Jan 10th 2009] he more or less said that Murray might be a very good player one day but he would have to win a few Grand Slams on the way. Murray continues to refer to Federer with great respect, suggesting he is still the greatest player in the world. Such graciousness by Murray is helped by the fact that he is now well ahead on head-to-heads against the great man, and so his statement is also a nice bit of self- promotion.

Role Models, Motivation, and Learned Need Theory

The general issue of ambition is captured in the theory of needs generally attributed to Harvard psychologist David McClelland.

Need for achievement, (N ach) is typified by a fierce motivational drive towards achievement. The high N-ach individual seems driven by deep personal needs which McClelland believed were acquired or learned by early life experiences.

The high-achieving individual

I will return to the broader issue of the high achieving individual in a later post. Here I’ll just mention a few interesting ways in which Murray may be reinforcing his need to achieve, suggested by aspects of the theory.

High N-ach personalities seek, and thrive on, rapid feedback towards identified goals. In Tennis, after each stroke there is feedback in the win/lose result. There is further feedback in everything that connects to a perfectly hit winner, or a badly executed shot, from the body position, to the noise of the ball off the racquet, and the applause of the crowd. After the match there are the rituals of winning and losing.

So will Murray win the Australian Open?
Murray is now close to the finished article technically and psychologically. My Delphic prediction for the Australian Open is that if Murray remains fit, a great victory will take place.

Betting on Murray against Federer

September 8, 2008

When Andy Murray squared up to Roger Federer for the US Open title, the smart money was on the former champion. But there were crumbs of hope for the romantics betting on the underdog

What considerations might lead anyone to back a player playing in his first Grand Slam final against one of the greatest of Tennis champions of the modern era?

Add to that the general view that the 21 year old Murray is still developing his game at the highest level, while the 27 year old Federer is still close to his awesome peak. as he demonstrated in beating Novak Djokovic in the Semi-finals.

No contest. But the odds offered on matchday offered were around 2/1 on Federer.

The immediacy bias

On of the famous biases in human judgement is known as the immediacy effect. Most people put to much weight in their decisions on the most recent bits of information. Murray played out of his skin to defeat World No 1 Raphael Nadal twenty four hours earlier, in a match interrupted by rain and extended over two days.

Rafa had recently snatched the No 1 slot from Federer. A great win for Murray.

Sky Sports summarizer was one Greg Rudzeski, who had been the last Brit to make a singles final for some years. (OK, an ex-Canadian, then).
Greg had been backing Federer to win, throughout the tournament. But now that Murray had outed Nadal, Greg flipped over. “It’s his destiny” he insisted. “He’s going to beat Roger. I’m going to change my pick. He’s playing better than Federer.”

For me, there are too many variables to reach a fully-convincing conclusion: Murray had lost five out of five matches to Nadal, and won two out of three matches against Federer. Nadal had beaten Federer in the final at Wimbledon this summer. Murray was likely to be more fatigued after his later completion of the Nadal game.

I suspect the betting is also biased by the proportion of the British Gambling public that is rooting for Murray. That is to say almost all Scots, and a rather smaller proportion of the English who are nostalgic for the days of Gentleman Tim Henman.

Tim, like Greg, thinks Murray will edge out the Fed. John MacInroe, and Nadal go with the bookies’ favourite.

Wisdom of the crowd says Federer. Track Record says Federer. Experience says Federer. So how come so many fans can’t wait for what they believe will be a close match?

Davydenko dumps Murray just like Federer predicted

March 7, 2008

When Federer lost to Murray at Dubai this week he said Murray had not developed much in two years. When Murray then lost to Davydenko, Federer’s harsh judgement seemed quickly justified


The remarks made by Roger Federer about Andy Murray were repeated by the media as the two prepared to contest The US Open final six months later.

Original Post

Fededer’s post match comments on losing to Andy Murray at Dubai caused a bit of a stir. He made his views clear. Murray had not developed a great deal despite his climb up the rankings in the last two years. Was the great man in denial after a rare loss?

Since his win over Federer, Murray’s performances seem to back up the Fed’s remarks. In the second round there was a scratchy performance against Fernando Verdasco which he could easily have lost. In the third round there was another lack-lustre effort against Davydenko in which the young Scot was comprehensively bullied off the court.

In both these efforts the most obvious characteristic of Murray’s play was a style that in essentials has characterised his play since his days as a promising junior. The style has often been described as that of a counter-puncher. He has always been a counter-puncher. It has survived changes in coach. But even after a time with Brad Gilbert he has remained a counter-puncher, albeit a much improved one.

It’s largely a matter of comfort zone. Under stress we all retreat to the most habitual responses to the pressure of the situation. Champions lose less, which is what we mean when we talk of their mental toughness. But under pressure we all now pretty much how an Andy Roddick will fight his way out of trouble. It will be different to how an Andre Agassi used to do it, or a Johnnie Mac. Murray’s way has been to stick even further to defense, reducing advances to the net even further.

Grooving and flexibility

Every player knows the importance of being grooved. How getting feet and body lined up just right to deal with as many different shots as possible. But grooving can come at a cost to flexibility.

Murray is still in search of grooving his now formidable serve. He does not bottle it on critical points. But it still needs more grooving, more consistency. He is more than flexible enough at a tactical level. Maybe too willing to try the low probability option that has commentators gasping in admiration when it works, and frustration when it doesn’t.

So the master has got a point about the apprentice. In some very important ways Murray has a signature to his play. Too often still he does not find the flexibility to depart from his comfort zone. That is sometimes concealed by brilliant improvisation that goes with the basic style.

Federer also said that maybe Murray will surprise us all over the next ten years. Maybe by winning slams. Let’s hope so.

Murray v Federer: A Glimpse of Momentum

March 3, 2008



Wimbledon 2008. Murray beats Gasquet in the third round [Monday 30th June 2008]. The match had similarities in momentum swing to his victory over Federer in Dubai, earlier in the year

The Original Post

Andy Murray defeats Roger Federer in Round one of the Dubai Tennis Open. I never really understood momentum in sport, but this afternoon I glimpsed how it might be a matter of filling in the dots [Sense making].

I have difficulty with concepts such as motivation, empowerment, and momentum. The terms are used often when no more specific explanation can be offered, in sport as well as in business and politics.

This afternoon [March 3rd 2008] I watched a thrilling tennis match. It was transmitted from Dubai, where Roger Federer was widely expected to confirm his status as World number one. He was playing in the first round against the improving young Scot Andy Murray. Murray indicated in advance that he was likely to learn a lot from the game, which is not the most positive statement ever made before a sporting contest.

The first set lived up to expectations. Murray is a promising but volatile young talent, likely to improve beyond his ranking at present. He kept pace with Federer in the first set, which went into a tie break, with neither player dropping service.

Murray grabbed a lead in the tie-break, then dropped it, and Federer as smooth and cool as ever, won a tightly contested first set.

That’s it, then. Federer to go on to win. He had won twenty five of the last twenty seven matches he’s played at the Dubai tournament. During that first set he played to the high level expected of him, also finding exceptional shots from time to time.

Murray survived the Federer onslaught, and even showed some flashes of improvised brilliance himself. His service has been improving in fits and starts as he made his rapid climb up the rankings over thr last two years. Today his serve was as solid and as powerful as I have ever seen it.

What happened next?

What happened next was very unexpected. The near- immaculate style of Roger Federer began to seem less awesome than usual. His was still finding those brilliant winners. But he was also playing a few shots slightly off-balance, and making unforced errors.

I don’t watch tennis with a notebook to hand for blog posts about sporting leadership. But something rare was taking place here. I found a scrap of paper and scribbled a few notes. Here are the unedited scribbles which began at the start of the second set:

F has changed the way he played. Indication of a drop in intensity. Got to 1:2.
Lost serve for first time. Momentum lost by RF. Murray keeps his cool and wins set.

Momentum now lost by RF. Still a bit down [in intensity]. If it wasn’t Federer [playing] you’d expect M to win now.

Murray gets to 4:2.

Will Murray win? Still not totally sure …

Murray 5:3

RF is out of gas.

Wins his serve to 5:4 but Murray is not going flat out. Willing to take it to his serve.

Wins serve. Wins match. He didn’t get down on himself at points lost, even ‘unlucky’ line calls.

Momentum, intensity, or what?

Here’s what I think. Momentum is difficult to pin down because it is a process not a single event. We may be jolted into awareness by a single surprise event, and quickly ‘fill in the dots’ of other events close in time to the ‘tipping point’, and anticipate what will happen in the near future.

I think the tipping-point for me was a clumsy missed backhand by Federer, accompanied by what I described as a drop in intensity.

I didn’t write it down, but I even formed the impression that the great man was, well, a kilo or so visibly over weight.

That’s the sense made of what I was seeing. If I observed anything that could be corroborated, it was those loose shots, evidence of a Federer not in complete balance and control.

Murray played to his best, and several outstanding points. These were particularly noticeable as he was closing in on the win in the third set.

A tentative conclusion

Andy Murray won a closely contested match in which Federer seemed to lose momentum that he might have been expected to maintain after winning the first set. The result seemed to have come about because a great player had a dip in intensity in his play, and another potentially great player who didn’t.

At the time, spectators make sense of what is happening as if they have figured out the plot in a movie. As the oracle might have put it … ‘And a great man will taste defeat’.

In other words, momentum is a story created in the minds of the observers, based on our ‘filling in the dots’ of what we have observed and remembered.

All this is a lot less exciting than the actual match was. By maybe, just maybe, it offers a clue into that elusive process of momentum.


Image of Andy Murray from wikipedia commons