The photographers wanted pictures of triumph and joy; Murray just wanted a lie down in the shade. He had just beaten David Ferrer 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 in the stifling heat and humidity of Miami’s Crandon Park and he was spent.
Still, this was a job well done. Murray had not played his best – his serve had let him down badly – but he had found a way to win against the tour’s chief terrier. Ferrer is willing to run until he drops to force the opposition to play another ball. And then another one. And another. It may not be the most potent form of attack but when the sun is beating down and the air is heavy and thick, it is soul-destroying for the man on the other side of the net. Every rally feels like running a marathon and the only way out is to keep on running.
Yet Murray managed to do the unthinkable – he ran Ferrer to standstill. As they fought through the final set tie-break, it was the likeable Spaniard who crumpled to the ground, felled by cramp. Murray was doubled over at the end of every point, gulping down air and praying for the torture to be over, but he was the last man standing. As he wearily hoisted the trophy above his head, he knew that, as of Monday morning when the new world rankings were published, he would be promoted and become the No 2. The only man more consistent than the Scot over the past 12 months was Novak Djokovic. Another milestone had been reached.
When Marcus Buckland instructed him to “go and enjoy yourself” at the end of their Sky TV interview, Murray heaved a huge, tired sigh and, almost too tired to attempt a chuckle, promised to try. But he will enjoy Sunday’s victory as the months roll on. As he heads for the clay court season, he will benefit from his new, elevated status. For a start, he knows he cannot face Djokovic until the final of any tournament while he remains at No 2, and the Serb appears to have pinned his every hope on winning the French Open. Djokovic lost in the semi-finals of Indian Wells and the fourth round in Miami and did not seem too bothered. He is chasing a career Grand Slam and this year may be his best hope of adding that fourth major trophy to his collection.
Rafael Nadal returned from his seven-month injury break with a bang, winning two small clay court titles in South America and then taking the Indian Wells title, much to his own amazement, on a hard court. Yet Nadal is still struggling with his knee: the ailing joint still gives him pain and he never knows from one day to the next how it will feel. Many may think he is still the man to beat at Roland Garros but, this year at least, nothing is certain.
But as Djokovic is planning his big push for the summer, so is Murray. If he can hang on to the No 2 ranking, his life could be considerably easier at the French Open and Wimbledon. With Nadal’s ranking down at No 5, the Spaniard may not cross Murray’s path at all in the draw while there is a 50-50 chance that Roger Federer will be safely tucked away in Djokovic’s half of the draw.
Overhauling the Serb for the No 1 position is more of a long-term project for Murray. At the moment, 3,620 ranking points separate them – the equivalent to a grand slam and a Masters 1000 victory and then some – and that gap will take a lot of closing. Still, Djokovic has to defend the ranking points he earned last year by reaching the finals of Monte Carlo, Rome and Roland Garros and the quarter-finals in Madrid. Murray, by way of contrast, reached the quarter-finals in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Roland Garros and did not play Madrid – a Masters 1000 event – due to a back injury. As a result, Murray has room for manoeuvre in the next couple of months while Djokovic has a lot to hang on to.
But it is the grand slam events that matter most – win them and the ranking takes care of itself. Ivan Lendl has always maintained that Murray has the game to win the French Open; Murray proved by reaching the Wimbledon final last year that he can last the course at SW19. And then there is the US Open, the scene of the Scot’s first grand slam triumph. The stakes are high this coming summer and by forcing himself over the finish line on Sunday, Murray has positioned himself perfectly for a chance to win the jackpot.
“A couple of years ago, I would have lost that match,” Murray said, exhausted but satisfied. “But in the third set, I chased every ball down and made it as difficult as possible for him. What I did do was fight hard, showed good mental strength to get through that match, because it easily could have slipped away from me.”
He may not have had enough puff left to enjoy himself on Sunday night but if he continues to inch closer to Djokovic in the rankings, there could be cause to celebrate before the summer is over.