Murray's humility can't deflect from great expectations
ANDY Murray wears the mantle of a champion with a lightness that augurs well. His determined efforts to talk-up Tim Henman's achievements in the aftermath of his Madrid Masters title win is a theme he has visited on many occasions, but the reality is that the former British No 1 is no longer a valid reference point for the Scot, and perhaps hasn't been for some time.
Murray is perhaps charting a more notable course, one destined to follow in the distinguished tread of Fred Perry. A Spanish journalist asked him whether he now considered himself the greatest British player since Perry on Sunday, and Murray replied with the humility which is now becoming as much of a trademark as his fiery temperament. "There's a long way to go before anyone can say that," he said. But is he possibly on the way?
Since falling to Rafa Nadal at Wimbledon, Murray has not failed to reached the semi-finals or better at any tournament he has entered, and, aged, 21, is without question worth his place among the best top four players in the world – a status Henman briefly occupied in 2004. Murray's target now is top three, although, such is the quality occupying those top berths, it is impossible for the Scot to overhaul Novak Djokovic this year, the Serb has 4,575 points compared with Murray's 3,420 with only two events remaining.
Not that it matters. His progress since his first win of the year, in Doha in January, has been more than acceptable, and were it not for hiccups such as at the Australian Open, where he made a first round exit, top three in the world might have been remained a realistic ambition. As it is, the Scot must declare himself content with his year's work, while his modesty helps mark this out as a crucial year in his development. The odds on him winning Sports Personality of the Year have tumbled, and while he might not have sufficient support to compete with triumphant Olympians and a possible Formula One world champion it is a clear indication that opposition to someone often cast as a brat in the past has mellowed. His disappointing performance in the US Open final was followed by a gracious speech, where he won the hearts of American fans and claimed new ones here.
His reaction to winning in Madrid has further impressed, and while he is too humble to suggest it, it must be ranked as the culmination of one of the best years in British tennis history. Leicester-born Mark Cox is the only Open-era British player to have won three titles in a single season, so Murray is now out on his own with four. As for Henman, all he owns over Murray is longevity – and French Open and Wimbledon semi-finals. Health permitting, Murray will surely sweep these achievements away in the near future, as he shows signs of entering a new, mature phase. His triumph over Roger Federer at the semi-finals in Madrid was not followed, as many feared, by a let-down in the final. He did what he had to do against the admittedly drained Gilles Simon.
It isn't, of course, the Grand Slam he craves, which makes comparisons with Perry redundant. Yet, with respect to a giant of the Thirties, the Scot is operating at a different level when we take into account the speed, strength and intensity required to flourish in the game now. Murray is executing shots never before seen by a British tennis player, and cut Federer down last week with a ferocity that Henman could only dream about. The Swiss player then noted Murray's development. Auspiciously, he compared it with his own.
"Since from the first moment I played him in Bangkok (in 2005] I knew that if he didn't screw it up himself, he'd most probably be in the top 10 soon," said Federer. "He was able to achieve that, for some maybe six months too late, for some maybe two years too late as people always like 15-year-olds winning grand slams, but that's not going to happen in the men's game.
"I think he's improved at his pace. I think first he had to grow up a little bit, become a man. I think he's taken that step well and now he seems much more relaxed on the court, which I think helps him.
"He's still fiery, which he's supposed to be," added Federer. "I think you need to give the young guys time to learn. He's like me, you can see how he is before and see how he is after. I share that in common with Andy."
Yet still Murray talks himself down, claiming that Henman's successes over a period of years means he occupies a plateau which he is striving to reach. There is clearly some truth in this. Whether Murray, whose injury problems are perhaps the greatest barrier to him doing what he wishes to do in his tennis career, will enjoy a period of sustained success is a question only the future can answer. Murray still believes there is significant improvement to come from him, and rejected talk that he is a top three player in all but official status. "I've played great the last few months, but those guys have been unbelievable for the last couple of years," added Murray.
"They are so consistent on every surface and throughout the whole year. The points total that Djokovic has got for being the number three player in the world is ridiculous.
"He would have been by far number one in the world at some stages. Those guys have been awesome and I'm still not close to them yet, I still need to keep working hard."
It is perhaps the very fact he offers no claim to have made the final breakthrough that helps others form the impression he soon will.
ANDY Murray, who has netted 1.25 million in his last five events, has no time to reflect on his success in Madrid. He is already en route to the St Petersburg Open, where he is defending champion. Here begins a season finale which is worth a possible further 750 ranking points to the Scot.
St Petersburg Open
20-26 October. Field: 32.
Surface: Indoor hard.
Ranking points on offer for winner: 250
27 October-2 November.
Field: 48. Surface: Indoor Carpet.
Ranking points on offer for winner: 500.
9-16 November in Shanghai.
Field 8. Surface Indoor/Taraflex.
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