Sporting Life

Search for consistency is the holy grail. Just ask Murray

Stan Wawrinka, that duke of deadpan, is asked recently by Charlie Rose, the interviewer, if he can ever be No. 1. Players usually hem, haw, they go, gee, maybe, who knows, it's possible. But not stoic Stan. His answer is as stern as his backhand.

"No." Then he laughs.

"I'm not consistent enough during the year."

Everywhere, like a tribe of bobblehead dolls, athletes will nod in agreement. Consistency is the repetition of skill, it is mastery of a craft, it is the holy grail, it is a headache.

Athletes often say, "We're human, not robots." They're frustrated by the world pointing out their imperfections, even though they dedicate their lives to finding perfection. Sporting humankind is ironically always in search of its machine-like self. It is this persistence, this search for control, which forms part of the attractive soul of sport.

Consistency is the repetition of skill, it is mastery of a craft, it is the holy grail, it is a headache. Athletes often say, "We're human, not robots." They're frustrated by the world pointing out their imperfections, even though they dedicate their lives to finding perfection.

One day at the Australian Open, Roger Federer is practising. Like a stylish automaton he's serving wide from the deuce court and every time the ball lands within inches of the sideline. He is producing perfect replicas of a small piece of athletic art every few seconds.

This repetition astonished me for amateurs struggle to produce even a single carbon copy of a tennis stroke or to bowl the exact same ball in cricket twice. How athletes do it every day, every week, every month, is so un-human that Rocco Mediate said of Tiger Woods, cut him open and you'll find "a bunch of wires and levers, and a big heart".

It's why we should applaud Andy Murray, owner of the best digit in tennis, No. 1, for it's a rise built on consistency. In 2012, he didn't even win two tournaments in a row. In 2013, 2014 and 2015, he won two in a row once in each year. This year he won three events consecutively once and then four in a row.

Consistency is the offspring of patience and the progeny of practice. Like Kobe Bryant hitting 500 jumpers a day in the off-season. Consistency is an attempt to tie down the wandering human mind. Almost like a meditative ritual, golfers and shooters will mimic the exact same process every time they fire a shot. To deviate is to find inconsistency.

Repeating skill is "very hard", said Abhinav Bindra, an air rifle gold medallist from Beijing 2008 who was visiting Singapore on Sunday. "Especially to repeat it under stress for there is always a new variable in every competition which you don't foresee. It requires immense flexibility of mindset to remain consistent in these situations and a creativity of mind to overcome challenges."

In training, skill flows. In competition, nerves tighten, equipment fails, weather alters, rivals are inspired, the body ails, the mood can be off, pain might visit, crowds annoy, and how athletes still find a way to win, again and again, shows an extraordinary command of mind, moment and environment.

It's such a fine control of an art form that it initially intimidates even the greatest. Last year Federer explained that, "I used to be famous for not being consistent." He said he looked at Woods, Michael Jordan and Pete Sampras and their consistency and, "I didn't understand how they could do it." He watched, he learnt, he improved, he did.

Murray's journey to this place has been long - he is 29 - and a revelation. The fourth Musketeer in history was D'Artagnan, an outsider, and so in a way is the Scot. Before 2016, he owned only two Grand Slam singles titles, while Federer had 17, Rafael Nadal 14 and Novak Djokovic 10.

Murray played his consistently best tennis at Grand Slams because he felt the pressure to win there: nine semi-finals, eight finals, three wins. Yet even though he is a grinder, he never seemed turned on by the treadmill of the tour. Week in, week out, he was just a dour poet with no muse.

Last year, weeks after winning the Davis Cup, he told me: "I think the whole year (in the Cup), from the first point through till last point, the crowd is there, the intensity in the matches is huge. It's a great atmosphere and you respond to that.

"You're more concentrated, more focused through every single point. Maybe it's a natural thing but when you're playing in front of smaller crowds, or early in the day when there aren't so many people there at some of the events, you are not quite as concentrated or focused on the match."

This is possibly where he needed to improve, to push, to hold onto intensity, every day, every point, to become that sturdy robot, who has off days, bad days, but still functions. "Getting to No. 1," he said, "is 12 months of work. Consistency. I have never done that before." Now he will have to do it again.

He is old enough not to require advice, except that he should probably refrain from reading the works of Oscar Wilde. After all, the writer once noted that "consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative". It's a very fine line. Even if it elegantly proves why novelists rarely make great athletes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2016, with the headline 'Search for consistency is the holy grail. Just ask Murray'. Print Edition | Subscribe