Andy Murray: Olympic gold bigger than a major
Many critics would still need plenty of convincing that the sport should be a part of the Olympic Games, but listening to Andy Murray yesterday you got a sense of how much a gold medal would mean to tennis players.
Murray, who was at Queen's Club in London to announce a commitment to play at the Aegon Championships in the build-up to Wimbledon for the next five years, said he would be "desperate" to win an Olympic gold at the All England Club this summer.
"I would say that winning an Olympic gold is bigger than winning a Grand Slam," Murray said, when asked what the lasting impact would be of winning either. "Everybody knows what an Olympic gold is. Everybody on the street knows about that anywhere you go. I think most people know what a Grand Slam is, but I don't think everybody does. The Olympics is bigger than tennis, bigger than the Slams for sure. It's a huge, huge competition, the biggest sporting competition in the world.
"It's just different. Within tennis I would say that when you finish playing, people would probably look at a Grand Slam before an Olympic gold, but in sporting terms an Olympic gold is pretty much the ultimate achievement."
Murray, who lost miserably to Yen-Hsun Lu in the first round in Beijing in his only previous Olympic appearance, recalled Roger Federer's joyful reaction after winning gold in the doubles four years ago. "You saw how much it meant to him," Murray said. "If he had won a doubles title at a Slam I don't think it would be the same thing for him. It means a lot to the players. The guys want to win so badly. You see the emotion of the guys winning a bronze. Novak Djokovic won a bronze medal at the last Olympics and it was a huge, huge thing for him. If he lost in the semi-finals of a Grand Slam, he'd be disappointed. You win a bronze medal at the Olympics and it's a huge, huge thing."
Asked what his priorities would be this summer, Murray highlighted Wimbledon and the Olympics. "The Olympics is just different," he said. "It's going to be a different atmosphere to a regular tournament. The feeling that you have when you're on the court is completely different. You feel like you're playing for other people, you feel like you're playing for your country. A lot of times when you're on the tour, you're kind of playing for yourself and the guys that you work with, whereas it's different when you see all the flags in the stadiums and you're part of the Olympic ceremony.
"Tennis at the Olympics has become a big deal. Everybody plays it now, whereas 10 or 15 years ago guys were skipping the Olympics. It's a bit like the Slams: no one skips the Australian Open any more."
Murray expects to spend plenty of time at Queen's during what promises to be the most demanding summer of his career. Not only will he head the field at the Aegon Championships but he also hopes to practise at Queen's in the build-up to the Olympic tournament, which starts three weeks after Wimbledon. There are Masters Series tournaments in Toronto and Cincinnati immediately after the Olympics, followed by one week's break before the US Open.
Before the grass-court campaign there is the clay-court season, which starts for Murray next week in Monte Carlo, where he will be joined by his coach, Ivan Lendl, who will then go with him to the Barcelona Open. Murray will stay in Spain to work with Lendl before playing in the Madrid Masters and then the Rome Masters and the French Open.
While Rafael Nadal took a lengthy break following the Australian Open and Federer will not compete again before Madrid, Murray and Djokovic are now into a demanding schedule that will stretch all the way from Dubai at the beginning of March through to the US Open in New York, which ends in mid-September.
Murray, however, insisted that he has planned his year carefully. "I looked at the whole schedule a year in advance and planned what I was going to do, where I was going to be off, where I was going to be training," he said. "Once Ivan came in a couple of things changed. I'm taking the same amount of weeks off, but just adjusting it. If [the schedule] isn't done properly guys could mess up their season. The schedule this year is the most important it has ever been."
Lendl sees no reason why Murray cannot win the French Open. The 24-year-old Scot admits that it takes him time to adjust to playing on clay, but he reached the semi-finals in Paris last year despite suffering an ankle injury midway through the tournament. Before that, in Rome, he nearly became the first player to beat Djokovic in 2011.
"I have to believe that I can win the French Open," Murray said. "Last year gave me a lot of confidence and I still feel like I could have played better. The French Open was a really important tournament for me last year. I've said it many times: not just because I got to the semis there for the first time, but because of how the tournament went.
"I probably should have beaten Djokovic in Rome. It's the only time – or maybe the second time – in my whole career that I've lost a match after serving for it. If I'd had a bit more confidence at the time, I probably would have won.
"I wouldn't say I'm the favourite going into the French because Djokovic, Roger and Rafa have got much better results than me on clay, but I think I can win against them. I need to work hard over the next five or six weeks, for sure."
Another major reason for Murray's optimism is the presence of Lendl, who has helped to boost the world No 4's confidence and to improve his game.
"He identified things I needed to work on to beat the top guys consistently, which is what the goal is, and to win the Slams," Murray said. "I've been close but if I don't try and improve and work on my game I won't get there. He has some fresh ideas, great experience and an understanding of what it takes to play in the majors."
Lendl won eight Grand Slam titles but had never previously coached a top player. Murray was impressed with the way Lendl sought advice from top coaches like Darren Cahill, who worked with the Scot last year.
Asked if there had been anything about Lendl that had surprised him, Murray said: "He's been a lot more open-minded than I expected. Most ex-players who I have spoken to – and there have been a lot – can be quite stubborn about what you should be doing and how you should be playing. He's been trying to find out how I have been thinking. He's been speaking to the guys I work with, spoken to Cahill, how it was to work with me. He said to [Cahill] that he needed a coach to help understand how things work.
"That was refreshing because as good as he was, not all ex-players are like that. He has lots of ideas, but if they don't work he will move on to the next thing. That's what he was like when he played. He tried different things, always wanted to learn."
Murray's 2012 diary
15-22 April Monte Carlo Masters
23-29 April Barcelona Open
6-13 May Madrid Masters
13-20 May Rome Masters
27 May-10 June French Open
11-17 June Aegon Champ'ships, Queen's Club
25 June-8 July Wimbledon
28 July-5 Aug Olympic Games
6-12 Aug Toronto Masters
12-19 Aug Cincinnati Masters
27 Aug-9 Sept US Open