As REWARDS go, it is not what many people would hope for: you work yourself narrow for two months to get back into contention as one of the best in the business and then, just when you are exhausted both mentally and physically, you are pitted against the toughest players on the planet.
But this is what Andy Murray has been working towards from the moment he left the US Open, beaten in the quarter-finals by Novak Djokovic. He has schlepped around the world trying to learn again how to win matches and tournaments – collecting three trophies along the way – and now he has his prize: a place in the Barclays ATP World Tour finals. Held in the massive O2 Arena in London, this is the ATP’s showcase event and it is Murray’s chance to show the world that he is back to his best.
Tomorrow, he will open his account against Kei Nishikori, the US Open runner-up, with Roger Federer and Milos Raonic waiting for him later in the week. Djokovic heads the other group and begins the defence of his title on Monday night against Marin Cilic, the US Open champion. He will also have to fend of the challenges of Tomas Berdych and Stan Wawrinka as the week progresses.
The first stage of the tournament is held in a round-robin format, which means that Murray can afford to lose a match and still qualify for the semi-finals. Then again, thanks to the complicated mathematical calculations involved in establishing the top two players from each group, Murray could win his first two matches and still not qualify for the knockout stage next weekend. The best plan, then, is to keep on winning.
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As the year has gone on, Murray has edged his way back towards the top of the rankings. Out of the top ten after the US Open, he is now back up to No 6 in the world and a decent run in the coming week could see him end the season back in the world’s top four. After a year of surprise results – Wawrinka and Cilic winning their first grand slam titles – that would re-establish the old order: the Gang of Four (Djokovic, Federer, Rafael Nadal and Murray) back at the top of the rankings ladder.
But in order to get himself back into that elite group, Murray must start beating his fellow gang members.
And that has, so far, been beyond him this season. Yet, after all he has achieved this autumn and after six, back-breaking weeks on the road to amass the points necessary to get into the Tour Finals, Murray now believes that the next breakthrough is within reach.
“I was getting asked earlier in the year if I would ever beat somebody in the top 15, then the top 12, top ten, top eight, top five – this is the last little step,” Murray said. “Maybe it is a big step. But I have won against those players in the past and the more time I spend on court with them this year, the better for me for next year.
“Whether I win against one of them this week or not, I will give it my best shot. But I still believe I can win against them and that is half the battle. Normally with most things in my career, things have happened quite gradually and slowly, so I am not expecting to finish in the top four but, if I do, it will be a very good effort after the last few weeks. It has been a tough year so I will try to have a good week, try to get some good wins under my belt.” At least Murray knows that this is the last tournament of the year. He can afford to put every ounce of strength into the next few matches and then rest and recover over the Christmas break. He was definitely weary last week at the final Masters event of the season in Paris but, by playing 23 matches in 37 days as he tried to earn his ticket to London, he had played himself into impressive form. His only concern now is how much gas he has left in the tank.
“It is always hard to judge until you are on the match court,” he said. “This week in practice, I have been okay. The practice is hard – you are practising against the best players in the world. That is always tough but it is good practice.
“You could say I played my way into form in an unusual way but winning matches is how you play yourself into form and winning matches is what I really needed to do at this stage. It was unusual that I played quite so many tournaments but the way you gain confidence is by winning matches.
“But I really wanted to try to play matches so that at the end of the year I would be competing against the top players and get as many of those matches in as possible between now and the end of the year so I am stepping up well for the beginning of the next year.”
All the hard work has been done in getting here and now Murray has the chance to see just where he stands in relation to the rest of the world’s elite. If he plays as well as he has in the past weeks, that place in the top four could be his; if he does not get there, he knows exactly what he has to do in the off-season to improve and hit the ground running next year – a win-win situation for the Scot. It is not such a bad reward for all that effort after all.
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