Tennis players are creatures of habit; they really do not like change, even if it is change for the good.
As Andy Murray prepares for today’s third round match-up against Croatia’s Borna Coric at the Mutua Madrid Open, he is moving into uncharted territory. It was at this point last year that the Scot, then the perennial No 2 to Novak Djokovic, ignited the afterburners and launched himself towards the top of the rankings pile.
It took another seven months of eye-watering effort to achieve the goal, but he got there. Now he has to do it all again if he is to stay ahead of the chasing pack and keep his No 1 spot. And that is a new experience for Murray.
Ever one to keep things simple and just work on the task immediately in front of him, Murray will not let himself get bogged down in calculations and endless permutations.
“It’s about trying to win tournaments and competitions – that’s what motivates me,” he said before he had struck a ball in earnest in the Spanish capital.
But being the very best player on the planet does change things. Djokovic, the man Murray leapfrogged to get the top spot, spent 223 weeks in all as No 1 and when he was finally deposed at the end of last October, he had been in pole position for 122 consecutive weeks. And he wants his place back at the top of the heap.
Currently without a coach having dispensed with the services of his entire team just last week, the Serb stumbled into the third round with a 6-1, 4-6, 7-5 win over Nicolas Almagro yesterday. He may not be at his best just at the moment but he is hoping to have appointed a new mentor by the start of the French Open at the end of the month or, failing that, by Wimbledon. That new guide will, he hopes reignite the fire that took him to the top in the first place.
“There are no general terms or formula for every player,” Djokovic said. “It just really depends, person to person, how you approach that, how you perceive that. When you get there [to No 1], everyone reacts differently. Obviously one type of player is just satisfied with that, just lets it go very quickly because he has managed to achieve, and he doesn’t want more than that, which is completely fine.
“There are also some players that feel even more kind of responsible towards that role and more motivated to stay there and make their name as part of the history book.
“Obviously I have plenty of that motivation. I’ve been very fortunate to be No 1 of this game for a long time. That’s definitely one of the things that always inspires me, to keep going and work very hard.
“Of course, I’m not the only one who wants that position. Andy right now is there – deservedly so. He’s dealing with that fantastically. He’s someone that is well-known around the tour for his working ethics. The hard work pays off. He’s obviously a very experienced player.”
Djokovic first claimed his place as No 1 in one, magical weekend in 2011. By reaching his first Wimbledon final, he knew he would overtake Rafael Nadal at the top of the rankings and then, to cement his position as the best of the best, he beat the Spaniard in the SW19 final. It was everything he could have dreamed of and more. Yet it served only to make him hungrier. “For me, back in 2011 was the first time that I managed to accomplish one of my life and career dreams, to be No 1, and win Wimbledon,” he said. “Obviously that was a fairytale story coming down in two days, I managed to achieve both of those great goals. I actually felt even more motivated after that to kind of keep going and try to make history, you know, get as many good results as possible, and maintain No 1.”
Djokovic, though, had a word of warning for Murray: everyone is hunting him down now. There is nowhere to hide and nowhere to run.
“You have Rafa coming back now, playing on a very high level,” Djokovic said. “Roger [Federer], as well. The other players, young players, that are coming up, they’re very hungry.
“When you’re at the top, you always feel like you’re being chased, like someone wants to take away that spot from you, which is normal. That’s how it works. Right now I’m not on that spot. I still feel, you know, motivated as ever to get back on it.”