Sporting Life

Murray offers insight into art of the long rally

In the time my train takes to travel between Yio Chu Kang and Braddell Road, I have routinely beaten an array of champions at Wimbledon. But even sporting fantasies (far more fun than a video game) must have limitations and there are some roles in modern sport far too fearful to even daydream about.

First, being a goalkeeper against Lionel Messi because his goals, so many of them dinks and chips, are inch-perfect humiliations. Second, guarding Stephen Curry, who has academics studying the trajectory of his obedient basketball.

And, third, venturing into a 25-shot exchange with Novak Djokovic. The Serb is so fast and flexible that an X-ray of him may not reveal the usual human skeleton but an internal framework consisting of coiled, steel springs. It is what has made him the world rally champion.

Long rallies in older times could resemble tedious debates. Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas once took 2min 17sec to settle a single clay-court point. This was tennis fast food when compared to the 643-shot rally played by Jean Hepner and Vicki Nelson in 1984 that nearly went an entire half-hour.

Those women admittedly did a lot of lobbing. Modern rallies, however, are high-speed conversations between violent geometricians and the first thing Andy Murray - who spoke to me in Dubai last month at the International Premier Tennis League - explained was that almost no one is thinking during the long rally because there is hardly any time for thinking.

The long rally is not always the great rally but at its best it is what we rarely get - continuous play. Sport is usually interrupted by errors and fouls but this is a rare and brief flow of movement and skill, somewhat like the intricate build-up to a football goal which involves multiple passes and assorted players.

"All players," said the Scot, "go onto court with tactics: where you might want to serve, the way you want to play certain points. But when you get into rallies, which are 20, 25, 30 shots, it becomes instinct. You have to think so quickly between every single shot. You only have maybe half a second ... it's not enough time to think loads about tactics, so it has to be instinct. (And) the more you get out of breath and tired, it becomes more instinct."

Amateurs almost never get to 25 shots because our bodies, imaginations and repertoires are exhausted by then. It's why we attach an awe to the top athlete who pursues the ball with patience and pace. He resembles the parrying boxer, throwing combinations while waiting for an opening to land the big punch.

But when?

"That's something (which comes) over the years of playing. You have an idea of when to pull the trigger and what shots to go for," said Murray. "Obviously against the best players you have less opportunities. They don't give you as many shots to pull the trigger so you probably have to be a little bit more patient."

This 'best player' is a troublesome chap: He doesn't only end points well, he elongates them cruelly. "Sometimes," says Murray, "you hit a great shot that against most players finishes the point but against the best players that ball comes back... So you have to be prepared to reset mentally in the middle of the rally." It's a case, he says of, "OK, I have hit a great shot, it's come back" and now don't rush and "go for a winner straightaway".

The long rally is not always the great rally but at its best it is what we rarely get - continuous play. Sport is usually interrupted by errors and fouls but this is a rare and brief flow of movement and skill, somewhat like the intricate build-up to a football goal which involves multiple passes and assorted players. But the rally isn't a single football team finding a collective rhythm, it is rival players briefly rising together. It is absolute proof that athletes push each other to discover their better selves.

Djokovic, in a rally, can hit the baseline several times and it is a modern precision built from technique, practice, strings, ego. As Murray said: "He defends very well. He's not making many mistakes: very few unforced errors but also very few forced errors as well. He's timing the ball very well in defence, too.

"And confidence is a big thing. When the big moments came (in 2015) he served well when he was under pressure and returned extremely well. They are the two most important shots in the game that people don't maybe talk about enough."

The long rally arrives without warning. Eight shots, unremarkable; 14 shots, interesting; 16 shots, tension; 20 shots, exhilaration. Amateurs mope endlessly after losing their version of the long rally. Professionals reach for towels which exist to dry sweat and to wipe away the past. The long rally lost is erased or, sometimes, taken comfort from.

Asked if it hurts more to lose a 25-shot rally, Murray demurred: "Extending and playing long rallies is good for me. It's a strength of mine to play long points. The more physical I can make the match the better."

Maybe this is what these men do: push and prod and take each other to the point where they run out of shots and ideas and can't think straight through the sweat. Which is, of course, precisely where we discover the unyielding, unending brilliance of Djokovic: Even when exhausted, somehow he rallies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 05, 2016, with the headline 'Murray offers insight into art of the long rally'. Print Edition | Subscribe