ANDY Murray yesterday reiterated his determination to mount a serious summer challenge to World No 1 Novak Djokovic.
Murray lost in five sets to the Serb in the semi-finals at the French Open and then watched yesterday as Djokovic went on the lose the final against Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 4-6.
But, despite the Scot’s defeat, there was definite spring in his step the day after the showdown on Court Philippe Chatrier.
That is unusual after going five sets with Djokovic. Win or lose, any encounter with the world No 1 tends to be a gruelling and brutal affair.
But he came close to beating his oldest rival – closer than he has come since that hot July afternoon in 2013 when he beat Djokovic to win the Wimbledon title. Since then, it has been one-way traffic for Djokovic – see Murray in the draw, beat Murray in the draw. It has happened eight times in a row now but, for the first time, Djokovic looked worried on Friday night as the Scot came roaring back at him from two sets down. And once it was over, Murray felt no pain – he was ready for more.
The world No 3 said: “Looking at both of the matches we played [at the Slams] this year, I was up a break in the third set in the Australian Open final.
“It was 7-6, 6-7 and I was up a break in the third set. Obviously here, I needed to start the match better, but I think, overall, I don’t think I’m too far away. Australia is his best surface, his best tournament for him. He loves the conditions there. Clay – he’s obviously, over the years, been much better than me on clay courts. On grass, we’ve only played a couple of times and I’ve played well against him so I think the US Open and Wimbledon, I prefer the conditions there for my game. So, hopefully, I can close the gap a bit more.”
For all the progress Murray has made this year, particularly on the clay courts, taking on Djokovic is always the true test. The Serb is the No 1 for a reason – coming into Roland Garros, he had lost just two matches all year, he was the Australian Open champion and he had won every Masters 1000 event he had entered since the start of the season. The first half of the year, then, belongs to Djokovic.
When Murray squared up to him in the two days of their rain-delayed semi-final, it was his chance to see just how far away from the Serb he was in terms of mental and physical strength, tactical nous and the ability to execute his game plan under pressure. Back came the reassuring answer: not that far. And now, Murray believes, the momentum may just tip in his favour as the tour moves on to the grass courts and on to the second half of the season. The thought of having another crack at Djokovic, this time in SW19, whets his appetite, too.
“To play Novak at Wimbledon would mean that I would be in the semi-finals or the final so I would obviously always sign up for that. I know how difficult it is to go far in these events on a regular basis. Anytime you get to play him or Roger or Rafa, it’s great. It’s a great learning experience. You can always improve.”
Certainly, Murray is looking forward to the next five weeks on the beautifully manicured lawns of south west London. A change in the calendar has allowed for an extra week between the French Open and Wimbledon which means that the world’s best no longer have to fling themselves onto the show courts of Queen’s Club with the red clay of Paris still sticking to their shoes. And Murray is covered in the red stuff having won 15 consecutive matches on clay before he ran into Djokovic.
“The thing that’s nice is that I can obviously get a few days break and then actually get some time to practise on the grass,” Murray said. “That a really positive thing. Obviously, when you do well at the French, normally it can be quite difficult for the first 10 days or so [on the grass] because you go almost straight into playing matches and you get no break. So, I’m happy with where my game is now; it’s just about getting the right plan together between now and the start of Queen’s to rest and recover and then prepare well for the grass because I feel like I’m playing well enough to do well.”
Since Murray got married on April 11, he has been playing the tennis of his life, although in his case, absence clearly makes the heart grow fonder. No sooner had he brushed the confetti from his shoulders than he was off to Barcelona to start training for the clay court season. He did not see his new wife until he got back from the Italian Open four weeks later and even then he was only at home for a couple of days. The world No.3 got to Paris early to get himself ready for the French Open and the new Mrs Murray did not join him until the Friday before the tournament began.
“This year, I’ve hardly spent any time at home,” he said. “Probably it’s the least amount of time I’ve spent at home for like six, seven years. I’ve hardly been in my own bed more than seven or eight days this year so it’s actually going to be nice to be home for a long stretch. All the British players love it. It is nice being in front of a home crowd and staying in your own bed and have your friends and family around. So, I’m looking forward to it.”