It is the ATP World Tour finals, it is the opening day of round-robin competition for those in the Ilie Nastase Group and all eyes are upon Andy Murray. Even Rafael Nadal is keeping a close watch on the world No 2.
This afternoon, Murray will open his account against David Ferrer, a man he has beaten 11 times in 17 meetings, most recently at the BNP Paribas Paris Masters just a few days ago. Waiting in the wings will be Nadal who will try to notch his first win of the tournament against Stan Wawrinka tonight.
Andy is able to win here – it would be an amazing finishRafael Nadal
The Spaniard is only thinking about Wawrinka at the moment but he knows he will have to take on his friend and old rival Murray later in the week. And for Nadal, coming to London on the back of a deeply average season, taking on the Scot, a man playing in the form of his life, will not be easy.
“Of course I am impressed,” Nadal said. “Andy’s an unbelievable player and he deserves to be where he is today. He’s had an amazing season. He has had good opportunities to win very important tournaments. He is able to win here – it would be an amazing finish. He could finish No 2 in the world at the end of the year for the first time. Another step. Great for him. And I wish him the best of luck – except against me. But I’m looking forward about my first match against Stan Wawrinka. That’s the real thing. Not thinking about Andy Murray.”
Two round-robin wins would be enough to secure that No 2 ranking for the year and establish Murray as second best only to Novak Djokovic in the world order. It would be a fitting end to the most successful year of his career. His two grand slam titles and his Olympic gold and silver medals will mean more to him but the Scot’s consistency on every surface throughout the 11 months of the season has been remarkable.
He has conquered the clay courts, winning his first two titles on the red dirt – which included his first win over Nadal on clay in the Madrid final – and picked up a further two trophies at Queen’s Club and in Montreal. Add in an appearance in the Australian Open final and semi-final finishes at the French Open and Wimbledon and Murray’s year is complete. Well, almost.
This time next week, Murray will be practising long and hard on an indoor clay court in Ghent in preparation for the Davis Cup final. Trying desperately to remember all that he learned and perfected about clay court play earlier in the year so that he can bring that to the match court against Belgium, Murray knows he has his work cut out for him. But even if the transition from the hard courts to the clay is never easy, Nadal is convinced that Murray can get the job done in good time to bring the Davis Cup back to Britain.
“I played the Davis Cup final a couple of times,” Nadal said. “We can create a story but we are competing in completely different tournaments in a period of time shorter than between here and the final of Davis Cup. Four days between. You can adapt. Time enough to prepare yourself for the final. It will not be a big problem for Andy. He’s an amazingly talented player.”
It was praise indeed from one of the greatest players in the sport’s history. But there have been times this year when Nadal has looked anything but great. He has won just three, small titles this season (two on clay and one on grass) and for the first time in 11 years he has not won a grand slam trophy. Pummelled by Djokovic in the quarter-finals of the French Open – only his second loss at Roland Garros in 11 years – he looked physically weakened and mentally crushed. Even when he began to turn his form around towards the autumn, Nadal was far from happy.
Even if he knew he could get himself back into the world’s top eight and qualify for the Tour Finals, his heart was not in it. A couple of months ago, he had no intention of playing in London; he was physically fit and he was winning matches but he no longer enjoyed his day job.
“I always thought that I was going to qualify [for London], but if I continue myself with feelings that I had couple of months ago that I was not enjoying… it was not physical, no. It was mental.
“I was not enjoying on court and not feeling myself competitive, so then in the most difficult tournament of the year, in the toughest surface for me of the year, probably will not make sense to play [the Tour Finals]. Don’t make sense. Play to enjoy and play to be competitive 100 per cent, yes. Play to play, no. The story now is different. I am enjoying on court. I don’t have that nerves that I had during the season. Doesn’t matter if I lose, I win, but I am enjoying on court, I am enjoying on practice court.”
Now working to a more structured practice routine, Nadal is playing better and has that old, familiar spring in his step. He reached the finals in Beijing and Basel losing only to Djokovic and Federer and he was in the semi-finals of the Shanghai Masters. Life is, at last, looking up for the world No 5.
“I’m happy to be here,” Nadal said. “It is good news being here ranked No 5 in the world. Level is still there. The motivation is mainly to keep playing the way I’m playing. I’m in a good position. It has not been an ideal season. I need to keep fighting. Keep competing well as I have done for the last few tournaments. I have the motivation to be able to do it.”
So Nadal is back in bullish mood with his results improving week by week. Even if Murray is the centre of attention at the moment, you can bet your life that the Scot will have his eyes fixed on Nadal over the coming few days.