IT is almost the end of the season and everyone is exhausted, none more so than Andy Murray.
For the very best in the business, there are just two more tournaments to negotiate before the Christmas break and most players are hanging on by their fingertips.
But for all that Murray is weary, after five weeks on the road, five events played, three titles won and the BNP Paribas Masters to deal with this week, the Scot is a contented man. Only twice before in his career has he put himself through a schedule as gruelling as the one he is coping with at the moment, but back then in 2007 and 2005, he was a young, eager hopeful on his way up. After 10 years as a professional and with two grand slam titles to his name, he never imagined he would have to graft and scrap the way he has this autumn but needs must.
When he left New York, beaten in the US Open quarter-finals by Novak Djokovic, he knew he needed to change something. For so much of the year as he returned from back surgery, he had played well for a match or two and then slumped to defeat in the next round. He had lost matches from a winning position and no matter how hard he worked in the gym or on the practice court, he could not find a solution to the problem. And that is when he decided to push himself to the limit.
“I know that after the US Open, I needed to start winning again,” Murray said, “and that’s why I said I wanted to start playing tournaments, whether it’s a 250 event, whatever you want to call it.
“If I wasn’t playing guys that were inside the top 20 in the world, I didn’t care; I just wanted to start winning again - and I had some good wins over in China. I also had a couple of tough losses, but I learned from them and then managed to turn that loss against Ferrer in Shanghai around in the last couple of weeks, and then I started winning against top-level opposition again which I wasn’t earlier in the year. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to do that between now and the O2.”
The O2 Arena in London is where the ATP World Tour Finals will be held, starting on 9 November, and it is the end-of-season jamboree for the top eight men in the world. After racing across the globe from Shenzhen to Beijing to Shanghai to Vienna to Valencia and now to Paris, he is almost sure of his place in that elite group. Should he reach the quarter-finals this week, he will be sure of his ticket but if a few other results go his way, he could rubber-stamp his place earlier than that. Then again, he could be edged out if he loses to Julien Benneteau today [Wednesday] and his nearest rivals have a decent run in France.
But however the results go this week, Murray is, at last, content. When he won the first of his three titles in the past weeks, it was his first tournament victory since winning Wimbledon last summer. The longer the title drought went on, the longer the pressure built and the faster his confidence evaporated. But when he got the better of Tommy Robredo in China, he was happy, relieved and in tears.
“It was a tough week for a number of reasons,” Murray said. “The final as well, like all of the finals they have been mentally tiring and quite draining. When it has been a long time since you’ve won an event, it’s different, it’s a different feeling, and you maybe put more pressure on yourself to do it. Also the way that I came back from 6-2 down in that tie-break, mentally and emotionally it was quite up and down, and then it was great to finish that week with the title. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a Futures, Challenger, whatever – winning does give you confidence, anyone will tell you that in sport: it does help, and it was the start of a good run.”
That first win began the talk of qualifying for the Tour Finals. Beating David Ferrer in Vienna and Robredo again in Valencia had the mathematicians of the ATP poring over their calculators to work out exactly what Murray had to do next to claim his place at the O2 Arena. But the speculation passed Murray by: he had rediscovered the art of winning and that was all that mattered as he eyed the new season and the four grand slam events that await him in 2015.
“Winning matches - that’s what I have been trying to do, to be honest,” he said. “I have lost a lot of matches this year when I’d been up – it’s happened a few times this year. I just needed to get mentally a bit stronger in those situations again.
“I also was really wanting to get back into the top eight players in the world, and it makes a huge difference for seedings in the major events. I still have a chance of getting maybe to No.4 between now and the end of the year, which would be very important for the beginning of next year, as well. Really, the only way to do that is also to get to the O2.”
And beating Benneteau tomorrow will be the next step towards that goal.