Two weeks in China, two titles won and not a set dropped – it has been a very profitable trip to Asia for Andy Murray. Coming to the end of the best season of his career, the Scot is in the form of his life and now he is breathing down the neck of Novak Djokovic for the world No 1 ranking.
And as Murray goes from strength to strength, so Djokovic is faltering. The once all-conquering Serb has been struggling since his victory at the French Open (where he beat Murray in the final) and has won just 17 matches since that Sunday afternoon.
By contrast, Murray has been all but unstoppable and has won 37 matches and collected the silverware at Queen’s Club, Wimbledon, the Rio Olympics, Beijing and now Shanghai. As Djokovic, pictured, pointed out a couple of months ago, there is one man who has clearly established himself as the best player in the world in the second half of 2016 – and he does not come from Serbia.
Murray’s 7-6, 6-1 thumping of Roberto Bautista Agut in the Shanghai final yesterday was yet another display of power, control and nous from the Scot. The confidence oozes from his every pore at the moment and he is physically and mentally at his very peak. Yes, Bautista Agut threw everything in his kitbag at Murray in the first set but it was never enough. Even when the current world No 2 wavered slightly, dropping his serve as he tried to close out that first set, he regrouped in seconds and then ran away with the tiebreak. After that, there was no way back for the Spaniard.
It was Murray’s sixth title of the year, his 41st overall and it was his 13th Masters 1000 trophy. He has now won more than $9.6 million (£7.8m) in prize money this year alone and he still has three tournaments left to play before the Christmas break.
But it is the No 1 ranking that has captured everyone’s imagination: can Murray do the unthinkable and topple Djokovic? Murray thinks not, not this year at any rate. But the chase is on and Murray is making his move.
“My goal is not to try and reach No 1 this year,” Murray said before the Shanghai final. “I’d have to win pretty much every match between now and the end of the year. And Novak would have to win hardly any. So it’s not in my hands.
“I want to try and get there, but I don’t think doing that by the end of this year is that realistic. So I just want to try and finish this year as strong as I can. Maybe give myself a chance at doing it the early part of next year.”
The mathematics look simple enough: in the Race to London, the tally of ranking points gathered in 2016, Murray is now only 915 points behind Djokovic. He will play in Vienna next week where there are 500 points available to the winner, then he goes to Paris the week after that where there are 1,000 points up for grabs and, finally, he moves on to London for the ATP World Tour Finals where, potentially, the winner can walk away with 1,500 ranking points. It would appear that all Murray has to do is keep on winning and the No 1 ranking is his.
But that would be to discount Djokovic and what he still has to offer – and no one, particularly Murray, is daft enough to do that.
The Serb was plagued by injury problems in the summer – first it was his wrist and then his shoulder – but it is his mental state that is the main cause for concern. He had pinned so much on winning the French Open to complete his career Grand Slam and hold all four major trophies at once that he appeared to run out of mental puff and motivation once his goal was achieved.
Last week in Shanghai his emotions were raw and plain to see: he trashed his rackets, he ripped his shirt in frustration and he took on Carlos Bernardes, the chair umpire, as he lost to Bautista Agut in the semi-finals.
In the previous round, he had tried a different tack – he was humming a tune to himself to calm his temper as he made a meal of getting past Mischa Zverev. But whatever he tried, he still looked out of sorts and miserable as sin to be back on court.
“There are definitely things that I need to regain kind of from the emotional/mental point of view,” Djokovic said after losing to Bautista Agut. “It’s a transition somewhere in between maybe just exhausted by the amount of matches I have had in the last 15 to 20 months. So maybe all in all that’s the cause of me feeling this way.
“But I had to experience sooner or later this. I knew I could not go on playing on highest level for so many years all the time, you know, but it’s good to experience this so I can hopefully get better in the period to come.”
That period will soon be upon Djokovic and it is one where he usually mops up the trophies. He has won the last four ATP Finals in London and the last three Paris Indoor titles – this is his happiest hunting ground.
As a result, Murray is not too concerned about claiming the No 1 spot this year; he knows his biggest chance will come in the first quarter of next season. Djokovic has the Australian Open to defend plus the titles in Doha, Indian Wells and Miami to protect.
Murray, on the other hand, took February off this year as he celebrated the arrival of his daughter Sophia, and then took another six weeks to get back to his best once he returned to the tour. Murray, then, can only make progress next year while the pressure will mount on Djokovic as he tries to keep his oldest rival at arm’s length.
Toppling Djokovic may not be at the top of Murray’s list of things to do this year but he knows that it is within his reach – and sooner rather than later. And if Djokovic cannot rouse himself from his current torpor and Murray continues to play as he has in China, then tennis may be saluting a new world No 1 come Christmas.