He needs to be a little bit stronger, play a little bit smarter and sharpen up his returns – that was Andy Murray’s considered opinion just minutes after he had lost the Australian Open final to Novak Djokovic on Sunday night in Melbourne.
This was a Murray no-one had seen before. He has now lost five of his six grand slam finals and after the other four losses he has looked either emotional or shell-shocked. Sometimes both. But on Sunday, he was already looking forward and planning for the future.
As the US Open champion, he is safe in the knowledge that he knows he can win a major championship, and beat Djokovic to do it, the defeat was easier to accept. With his goals set for the next few weeks, he was disappointed to lose but at peace with himself. More importantly, he was eager to get back to work as soon as his aching body had healed.
With five weeks off between now and his next tournament in Indian Wells, Murray has plenty of time to recuperate and prepare at his Miami training base. His ultimate goal is to reach the No 1 spot in the rankings, but that is a long way off. In the meantime, there are ranking points to be gleaned at the Masters series events in the Californian desert and Miami so that is his priority at the moment.
“My next goal is to try and play good tennis in Indian Wells and Miami,” he said. “I’ve realised in the last year or so that when I set myself short-term goals I tend to play better tennis that way. Previously, after every slam I would look way ahead to the next one and kind of take my eye off the ball with the other events, so that’s the immediate goal. That and also slightly think about the French Open; it’s a tournament I’m capable of doing well in but for me it takes a lot of practice, a lot of hours on clay to get used to it. So that’s a major goal for me but I’ve got to do well in the next few months.”
The margins are tiny between the big four at the very top of the game so Murray knows that the smallest tweak, the most miniscule of improvements could make the difference between winning and losing.
Already one of the best strategists on the tour and one of the best returners, he knows that if he can just polish a couple of shots then he could have the better of the world No 1 next time.
“I will have a think about why I maybe didn’t create as many chances on the return as I’ve done in the past, I’ll look at that,” he said, “but the way I was striking the ball was fine. My tactics were right I just didn’t give myself enough opportunities on his serve so that’s what I’ll think about. Try and improve my return.”
Last year, Murray’s form was patchy after he left Australia. For four months, he struggled to find any sort of consistency and it was only at Wimbledon that he found his game and set off on his magical summer.
That means he has very few ranking points to defend between now and the grass court season so a good run in America and on the European clay in the spring could move him closer to his goal of the top spot.
Even so, Djokovic is so far ahead of the chasing pack that winning a title here or there will not be enough; Murray must be consistent week-in, week-out if he is to overtake the Serb.
“I obviously didn’t do particularly well on the clay until the French last year,” he said. “Indian Wells wasn’t good so there’s obviously potential to pick up points and improve my rankings. The way the rankings are, I think these should be the events that dictate the majority of the rankings but that’s not always the way it works.
“It’s tough, if I had won tonight I would have two slams, a Wimbledon final and Olympic gold and still been well behind Novak. Novak still would have been significantly ahead of me even if I’d won. The consistency of him just now, Rafa coming back – it’s going to get tougher. I’ll need to do well the next few months and not play badly, especially in the Masters series, I will need to do well there.”
Murray has reached the Indian Wells final in the past, he has won the Miami title and reached the final last year and from the moment they started working together, Ivan Lendl had no doubt that the Scot was perfectly capable of winning the French Open. Murray had plenty to think about on the long flight home and, for the first time after losing in Melbourne, so much to look forward to.