For the past year, 12 long and frustrating months, Andy Murray has been trying to prove a point, that he truly belonged as one of the Gang of Four at the top of the men’s rankings.
And as of 12:37am on Saturday, Australian Eastern Standard time, he did it – he showed his doubters, his rivals and his critics that he truly deserves to stand shoulder to shoulder with Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
True, he lost his Australian Open semi-final in five sinew-snapping sets to Djokovic as Friday night ticked into Saturday morning, but he knew that he had closed the gap on the other three. And the other three knew it, too.
But now that he has gained full membership of the elite, he does not want to be one of the top four, he wants to be the top man. He knows he is inches away from winning a grand slam title and so now the targets have been adjusted; now Murray wants Djokovic’s spot on top of the world.
“You’re always going to have people that doubt me, and say ‘he’s not that good’, ‘he’s not as good as them’,” Murray said.
“I’m aware that I still need to prove some things and win the match like tonight. It was so close. But I need to make that last little jump and I’m much closer than I was at this stage last year.
“I don’t know how much Novak can keep improving but he’s played great tennis the whole of last year, made a big improvement and I think now I’ve started to improve and I think it’s because of those guys that I’m playing as well as I am. I want to get to No.1. That’s one of my goals this year and I’ll try my best to do it.”
You certainly cannot fault Murray for his ambition but his new goal is no pie-in-the-sky daydream. After coming within a service return of beating Djokovic over the course of four hours and 50 minutes, he knows he can match the current No.1.
The year is young and there will be plenty more opportunities to take on the Serb and, Murray believes, beat him. If he needs affirmation, he only need talk to Rafael Nadal who is convinced that Murray can do it.
“He can be No.1 at the end of the season,” Nadal said without hesitation. “I don’t have any doubt on that. The level is there. When you are able to play how many, five Grand Slams in a row playing semi-finals or final, it’s only a mental thing.
“The rest of the things are there. He started the season another time playing very well winning a tournament, playing semi-finals here, and few points away to win against the No.1 player of the world. He’s ready for everything.”
When Murray walked out of Melbourne Park last year, he was devastated. He had been crushed in three sets by Djokovic and had never looked capable of playing anything like his best. He did not know what to do against the confident, aggressive Serb – or, if he did know what to do, he did not know how to put the plan into practise in the tension of a final. On Friday, Murray knew exactly how to win and he very nearly managed it.
So as he climbed into his car at 2:30am, he looked still looked gutted – any defeat is hard to take – but there was a look in his eye that promised much. This year, he had a goal to work towards and a clear plan of action.
“I think in four or five days’ time when I talk to the guys about the match and the last few weeks, we’ll have a good chat about it and I’m sure I won’t be as disappointed as I am just now,” Murray said. “So I’ve got to try as best as possible to take all the positives from it, see the things I need to work on. If I don’t feel like I can improve, that’s when things are going to go badly but I think that I can still get better.”
It took a good couple of months for Murray to shake last year’s defeat from his system – he had lost three grand slam finals and not won so much as a set in any of them.
For all that he got himself back on court and started working hard, the nagging little voice kept whispering in his ear: “Are you really as good as you think you are?” It took weeks before he was able to shake it.
“Once you get back on the court again, you’re doubting yourself a little bit,” he said. “I wasn’t beating myself up. It’s just like: am I going to get there or not?”
But after Friday’s match, he knew that he is almost there already. Before his return flight had been booked, Murray was planning his next move – a few days of rest and then off to Miami to start training again with Ivan Lendl. In the three short weeks the two have been working together, Lendl has already managed to teach his charge the art of self-control under pressure and the added focus has made a huge difference to the Scot’s performances. Lendl still has plenty to teach his pupil and Murray is eager to learn.
“I want to try to repay the sort of faith that he’s shown in me by coming to work with me,” Murray said. “So I would have liked to have done obviously better here. But I haven’t spoken to him too much yet. Hopefully he was happy with the way I did and how I acted on the court. Hopefully, at the French Open I’ll do a little bit better.
“I’m going to go out to Miami ten days before Dubai [the tournament at the end of February] because there’s no point practising in cold, indoors. I need to practise in the warm weather, I don’t want to be practising indoors. So as soon as I can I’ll go over to Miami and start working.”
On Friday night, Murray proved a point. By the end of the year, his rivals believe that he will have proved much more than that.