JUST when Andy Murray wanted to hide under the duvet with a cup of tea and a packet of hobnobs and forget about his 56-minute hiding at the hands of Roger Federer last Thursday, he got the call to arms.
With less than an hour to go before he was due to take to the court, Federer had pulled out of the ATP World Tour Finals showpiece with a bad back. The tournament needed someone to stand in and provide some sort of entertainment for the 17,000 fans who had turned up expecting to see Federer take on Novak Djokovic. Could he get himself to the O2 Arena?
Actually, when Chris Kermode, the executive chairman and president of the ATP, rang Murray, the Scot was sitting with his feet up on the sofa at home and playing the Mario Karts video game. But the moment Kermode explained his problem, Murray was on his way to the east end of London. The call came at 2pm and, at that point, Federer was still trying to get himself ready to play so Kermode warned Murray that he might be stood down when he was still halfway round the M25. No matter – the world No 6 was on his way.
“I have to apologise,” Murray said after he had played an exhibition pro-set against Djokovic (and lost it 8-5), “because I clearly pushed Roger so hard on Thursday… It’s tough and it’s a problem with individual sports: if someone gets hurt, you get left with a situation like this. I’m glad I could help.”
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Kermode was relieved and hugely grateful to his last-minute stand-in. “‘People will say many things about athletes and on Andy in particular, people can be very critical,” Kermode said. “But he has a fundamental responsibility for tennis and an acknowledgement that people are paying money to come to see something. He was straight in.”
And so it all ended with a whimper, a whimper of pain in the case of Federer. The grand finale to the tennis season and the ATP’s showcase had fizzled out like a damp squib. A subdued Djokovic took his trophy and his winner’s cheque of just over $2 million but it was not the way he wanted to end his impressive season. Federer, meanwhile, was clearing his locker and heading home.
When Federer walked into the O2 Arena in tracksuit and cardigan yesterday afternoon, the crowd groaned – they knew what was coming. Rumours of his injury had been buzzing around the stadium all day long. But when Kermode announced that although not “a direct replacement for Roger Federer”, that Murray would play a pro-set with Djokovic and would then team up with John McEnroe to play a hit-and-giggle doubles match against Tim Henman and Pat Cash, the disgruntled masses cheered up enormously.
“I’m sorry I’m not match-fit to play my match tonight,” Federer told the crowd. “I clearly wish it wasn’t so but I tried everything I could – painkillers, treatment, rest, warm-up – right to the very end. But I can’t compete at this level against Novak, it’s too risky at my age.”
Federer’s revival this year has been due to his fitness – the back issues that had plagued him throughout 2013 appeared to have been resolved and he was able to play as many tournaments as he wished and practise and train as often as he liked. Such freedom gave him a new lease of life and brought him five tournament titles, 72 match wins and put him within touching distance of the year-end No 1 ranking. And then something jagged in his back as he clung on for dear life to beat Stan Wawrinka on Saturday night.
“I was feeling great until yesterday’s tiebreaker,” Federer said. “I felt all of a sudden the back was feeling funny. I tried to have treatment on it, medication on it, just tried to turn around as quick as possible really, but didn’t really feel that much of an improvement overnight.
“Then you don’t have a day off or anything to work with, obviously it’s not enough time to recover. The way I feel right now, there’s no way I can compete at any level really.
“Probably in a few days it’s going to be better, but right now it’s not good enough. So, clearly, it’s very disappointing. I think you have some reccurring things coming back from time to time. It’s not that much of a surprise. So this back spasm, whatever it might be, it’s just not a fun thing to have during the day. It’s just uncomfortable. But I’m positive and I’m hopeful that it’s going to go away very soon.”
Severin Luthi, the Switzerland Davis Cup captain and one of Federer’s two coaches, will be hoping the injury clears up sharpish, too.
On Friday, Switzerland begin their campaign for the Davis Cup against France in Lille. On paper, Federer and Wawrinka look a stronger outfit than Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga but if Federer has a dodgy back, he will not be relishing playing best-of-five-sets matches on clay. He is now planning two days of total rest in the hope that it will ease the back spasms.
Kermode also promised that everyone with a valid finals ticket bought from a recognised ticket agency would get some form of refund and they would be contacted by their ticket agent within the next 48 hours. They would also be first in line to buy tickets for next year’s final.
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