Novak Djokovic should be careful what he wishes for.
When he beat Andy Murray in the 2015 Australian Open final, he congratulated the newly engaged runner-up and wished him and his fiancée “many babies” in the future.
As a new father himself, he was on a high and had won three titles and lost just one match since his wife presented him with baby Stefan the previous October. Little did he know what would happen next.
As Djokovic beat Murray again in the final this past January, the Serb was on top of the world in every sense: seemingly unbeatable and untouchable at the top of the rankings. But as Murray raced to the airport to get home in time for the birth of his daughter, Sophia, things were about to change.
To be the very best in professional sport requires total dedication and focus, a single-minded selfishness to squeeze every drop of success out of natural talent. Alongside that, then, parenthood does not sit easily. And yet for Murray, it has been the making of him: away from the courts, he could not be happier while on the court, he has found a new calmness and consistency. The highs are not as high and the lows are not as low. The end result is that Murray has proved himself to be the best player in the world, overtaking Djokovic in the rankings last weekend at the Paris indoor tournament.
“The thing is, it has distracted me in a good way,” he said. “All of my focus isn’t on tennis now, which is a positive. Maybe before, tennis was like my life and now it isn’t. I still want to do well but it’s true that when I finished in Paris, I was really happy that I won but I wanted to go home and see my family and that’s more important now.
“Maybe my focus is a little bit different but I’m not dwelling on wins and losses as much. I feel a lot more level-headed through the year emotionally. I’m not as up and down. My mood isn’t based on ‘OK, I won a tournament that’s amazing’. And then when I’ve lost, I’m not way down here, either. I just feel a lot more stable throughout the year.”
Murray lives only an hour’s drive from the O2 Arena (the M25’s traffic problems permitting) and this year he is staying at home for the week rather than in a London hotel. The chance to spend some time with his family is worth the commuting time and with the off-season approaching, the itinerant tennis player can finally get a taste of normal life. Even so, work still tries to get in the way.
“She just started crawling yesterday,” the proud father said. “I wasn’t there unfortunately. I was practising. There’s video of it and I saw it this morning for myself. It’s nice. Anyone that’s a parent will say that. Even though it’s baby steps, small steps, it’s nice to be around when that’s happening and that’s why this period of the year is great.”
But there is still work to be done. Murray must do as well as – or, preferably, better – than Djokovic to keep his No.1 ranking this coming week. But even if he loses it, there will be many opportunities to get it back at the start of next year and the rivalry between the two players in the world will only intensify.
The new season will also bring the return of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the other members of the Big Four who have dominated the rankings for the past 13 years. Federer is 35 and has not played since Wimbledon because of a knee injury (and is now down to No.16 in the rankings) while Nadal, 30, ended his season in October due a persistent wrist problem. It does seem that the golden era of the Big Four is coming to an end.
“When somebody is not playing for six months like Roger, then they can’t maintain their ranking and they are not competing for the biggest events,” Murray said. “Rafa, when he was starting to play better, he had this problem with a wrist issue and that has set him back a bit. I think next year will be interesting. That will be the time to sort of tell whether it’s done and that era is past.”
Whether Federer and Nadal’s time has passed is yet to be seen but this is most definitely Murray’s moment. Djokovic really should have been more careful about what he wished for.