IT WAS only a couple of months ago that Andy Murray was resetting his goals and his thinking. After seven years as a member of the world’s elite group of players – the Gang of Four at the very top of the rankings – and a dead cert for the semi-finals, or better, at any grand slam tournament, he was now out of the top ten and a fully-fledged member of the chasing pack. Times had changed.
His win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the fourth round at the US Open was his first victory over a top-ten player in as long as he could remember but it was not a major achievement by his standards. Losing to Novak Djokovic in the next round hurt. He had to stop thinking like a top-four player and work out a way to get back into that elite group.
Now, after six weeks of hard graft, flinging himself from tournament to tournament around the globe, Murray is almost back where he belongs. His defeat by Djokovic at the BNP Paribas Masters on Friday night was disappointing but it was not a disaster. He knew where he went wrong – rushing through the second set, making too many unforced errors and letting Djokovic push him around. But the match was his 23rd outing in 36 days and only his third defeat in that run. He was tired, the adrenaline was not coursing through his system as his goal for the week had already been achieved (he had qualified for the ATP World Tour Finals the day before). A loss to the world No.1 in Paris was of no consequence. It was what was to come that mattered.
For a bloke who was supposed to have had a bad year, he was doing all right. The last six weeks of competition had brought him three tournament trophies, earned him a ticket to the prestigious end-of-season showcase event and given him a chance to get back into the world’s top four. Only Roger Federer – who also lost on Friday in Paris – has won more matches than him this year and Federer is chasing Djokovic all the way to London to end the year as world No.1. Murray is fit, match-tight and has his eye on the silverware in London’s O2 Arena. As bad years go, 2014 is turning out rather well.
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“Winning, that would be the goal,” Murray said. “I know it will be difficult. A lot of guys – Novak and Roger especially – are going in with a lot of motivation and would go in as the favourites, I would expect. But the guys with big serves – [Milos]Raonic, [Tomas] Berdych, [Marin] Cilic – these are big guys that enjoy playing indoors, as well. It’s going to be an interesting tournament. But, if I play well, I give myself a good chance. And I’m definitely match fit. I won’t be going in there under-cooked, that’s for sure.”
The coming week will give Murray a chance to rest his weary bones and settle into his surroundings in the east end of London. He is wary of being away from the courts for too long – he has built up a good head of steam over the past weeks, after all – and with the top eight players in the world all vying for glory, he knows he will have to be ready for anything when the first ball is struck next Sunday. There are ranking points and dollars aplenty up for grabs at the Tour Finals but, more importantly, there is pride to play for. These are the best of the best and no one will give an inch once play begins.
“I wouldn’t have thought I would take too long off,” Murray said. “I’ll definitely take a couple of days off. I won’t start hitting again soon. Hopefully I will be back on the court at the beginning to the middle of next week, hitting balls. If I was to take maybe four or five, six days off now I think that wouldn’t be a great move. I think just now when your body is a bit tired it can be good to just keep it moving because you need to come out firing at the O2. You can’t sort of ease your way into the event. Hopefully, I will be able to do that.
“You’re obviously excited to play, but the matches and the way they come about is very, very different to the slams just because it’s best-of-three-set matches, it’s round robin – which means you can afford to lose a match – but also the fact that it’s best of three and starting against top players, you know, you need to be ready right from the beginning. You can’t afford any sort of loose sets against those guys, because the match can be over quickly. So it’s a tough event, but one that I have enjoyed in the past.”
Murray will know the scale of the task ahead of him tomorrow when the draw is made but, with 1,500 ranking points available to the undefeated champion, a place back in the world’s top four is distinctly possible. Perhaps now, after all he has achieved in the last six weeks, it was time to start thinking like one of the elite again?
“I think after the last six weeks, it has been definitely positive,” he said. “My confidence is much better than it was before. In terms of being top four, I need to get myself back into the top four before I start thinking like that. Maybe at the O2 I’ll be able to do that.”