When you have a CV as glittering as Andy Murray’s, it is hard to find new ‘firsts’ to tick off. Grand slam champion? Done. Olympic champion? Done. World No 1? Done. Now what?
But as Murray ground his way past Kei Nishikori 6-7, 6-4, 6-4 in three hours and 20 minutes yesterday, he had racked up two successive round robin wins at the ATP World Tour Finals for the first time since the tournament was rebranded, relaunched and brought to London’s O2 Arena. He had also played in the longest match since the move to the Greenwich Peninsula and played the joint longest three-set match of the year on any surface on the ATP Tour.
But more importantly, it was the first time the Greenwich crowd had seen what the rest of the tour has been raving about these past five months as the Scot has fought his way to the top.
As he has collected seven of his eight trophies for the season in the second half of the year, Murray has played some inspired tennis but there have also been times when he has to dig deep, to scrap and fight and play ugly to get the win. And yesterday as nerves seemed to take their toll in the 85-minute first set and weariness became a factor in the next two sets, Murray hung on.
He wore Nishikori down and even when the Japanese refused to go quietly, he kept on and on. Eventually the relentless pressure won the day and the crowd realised just why their Andy Murray is the best player in the world. They make ‘em tough in Dunblane.
“I don’t know if it’s necessarily stubbornness that won me the match today,” Murray said. “I think actually the ability to make slight adjustments and change whilst you’re out there on the court is a very positive thing, but it’s very important. That’s one of the things that the top players I think do well. They work things out when they’re out on the court, are able to make changes and adjustments.”
There were hints that hidden beneath the mistakes and the tension, there was a decent tennis match trying to get out in the first set. Whenever either man needed to produce a touch of magic, they rummaged around in their kitbag and found the shot they needed. But the errors were mounting up: 40 unforced fluffs between them in that first set.
One of the best returners in the game was taking on one of the lesser serves in the world’s top 10 and yet it took Murray 62 minutes to get a glimpse of his first break point – and then he was not allowed to convert it.
When the first set finally escaped him, Murray could have been forgiven for venting his spleen. Messrs Delgado and Lendl at the courtside were certainly getting ‘feedback’ from their man about how he was feeling but there was no dip in intensity or loss of concentration. Murray was in it for the long haul and even if he was giving himself stick for the odd missed opportunity and smiling sarcastically at errors, he was never going to give in.
“I didn’t feel like I was hitting the ball as well as I would have liked” he said. “He was dictating so many of the points. For me it was frustrating. Didn’t matter whether I tried to hit the ball a bit harder, adjusted sort of my position on the court, nothing was making me hit the ball cleaner.
“As the match went on, I was becoming like sarcastic with myself that I couldn’t seem to hit the ball as clean as I wanted to.”
The win edges him ever closer to the end-of-year No 1 ranking that all the players covet. The winner of the Ivan Lendl Group will play the runner-up of the John McEnroe Group in Saturday’s semi-finals but who will finish where is yet to be decided. Murray could play Novak Djokovic in the semis, he could play him in the final. All he knows is that he needs to keep winning to keep his place at the top of the heap.
“I can only concentrate on trying to win my own matches,” he said, “get through as many as I can and make it as tough as possible for Novak to jump me.”