By Ros Satar, at the ATP World Tour Finals, London
- Andy Murray opens his campaign at the season-ending finale on Monday.
- Warm praise from the other players ahead of Sunday’s opening matches
- Will it be a straight fight to the finish between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic?
- Check our featured players stats with TennisAbstract.com
LONDON, ENGLAND – Andy Murray will take to the court on Monday as the World No. 1 and says he is prepared to finish the year on a high.
With British tennis in rude health as the season-ending finale comes to its conclusion in a cold and brisk London, not surprisingly the topic of the conversation came around to the Andy Murray who will take to the court for the first time since being crowned number one this week, on Monday night.
It has easily been a landmark year for the Brit. He may have started the year playing second fiddle to Novak Djokovic yet again in the final of the Australian Open and, following the birth of his daughter in February, his spring hard court campaign fell flat.
He has gradually built up momentum. First through the clay court season with finals in Madrid, and the French Open with the Rome title in between, as Djokovic achieved that elusive career Slam, before the grass court double at Queen’s Club and of course a second Wimbledon title.
Next up, as Djokovic suffered a crushing defeat to the eventual Rio 2016 Olympic medallist, Murray became the first player to successfully defend an Olympic tennis title.
It seemed there was no stopping him – yet Marin Cilic (his first round foe on Monday night) was the man that brought a 22-match winning streak to a close in the final of the Cincinnati Masters, together with losses at the US Open and in the Davis Cup semi-final.
But it was the Asian swing that did for both the protagonists as the year wound its way to a close. Djokovic, struggling with an elbow injury pulled out of Beijing, a tournament that had been his lucky Asian charm, starting Murray on a tilt to scrape up points heading into London.
Bejing, Shanghai, Vienna and now Paris silverware in the bag, Murray summed it up before the tournament started.
Talking before the tournaments starts on Sunday, Murray said: “I consider it the best year I’ve had on court. The last few months have been the best in terms of consistency. I played pretty well in all of the big events. Even matches I lost were really close, ones I could’ve won as well in New York and Davis Cup against [Juan-Martin] Del Potro. Away from court it’s been by far the best year I’ve had in my life. Big change. Great change. Really enjoyed being a parent.”
This was a very different scenario though from his frantic chase two years ago, as he entered everything short of the Polar Bear Challenger in Antarctica to gain his spot in London, only to be too spent to make an impression.
In the same way that Murray downplayed the narrative in Paris as he almost anti-climatically ascended to the top spot by virtue of a walkover thanks to Milos Raonic pulling out before their semi-final, he maintains any pressure is more of a positive.
“It feels good. I don’t feel any different this week than I did the week before when I get up in the morning and stuff. Maybe when you step on court, have a little more confidence, feel a little better about yourself when you’re hitting balls and getting ready for the tournament. It didn’t feel much different when I woke up on Monday morning. It felt just the same.”
For all that though, in recent years London has proved to be more of a nadir that he would have liked.
He said: “The first few years it was here I played well, played good tennis. Couple of years I wish I could’ve played and done a little better,” before admitting that last year, ahead of the Davis Cup final practising hard on clay had hardly been the best preparation.
He continued: “This year, I had a good run in Paris which a lot of years I hadn’t done so I took a few days off after Paris, just came over and hit here. I’m staying at home this year for first time, never stayed at home, always stayed at hotel so doing that little differently.”
It is of course one thing to become No. 1, it is quite another to stay there. Djokovic has made this his domain over the past four years, seeking a fifth straight title and his sixth season-ending crown over all.
In past years the courts had been slowed down, one year rendering the round-robin matches as dull straight setters where the crowds would get giddy if more than three games were notched up by a losing player. But this year the courts have been sped up to be a little more consistent with those tournaments just passed.
Murray explained: “The courts [are] a bit faster this year, quicker than it has been in the past. That changes the way you play the match a little bit. Having a slower court and really, really long rallies is tough.
“Heard they wanted to keep it similar to Paris which is good. I heard Basel was quite fast. From players’ perspective, if there’s consistency that’s positive. In Paris you saw some slightly different tennis because the surface allowed it, so you might see guys up at the net a bit more, shorter points, quicker matches. I think that’s good.”
It was noticeable that players from both the ATP and the WTA tour were quick to send their congratulations to Murray after he was confirmed as the new World No. 1 after Paris.
But more than that, they appreciate the consistency he has shown over the past several years since climbing to the Top 10 in 2008.
Kei Nishikori, who beat him at the US Open in a five set thriller, playing one of the matches of his career said: “He’s having great year so far. No. 1 player right now, that’s great to see – a new No. 1 player. What Novak did these couple years is something nobody done before, but this is great change. For sure he’s gonna stay here long time, but Novak’s gonna be playing strong again next year, Stan [Wawrinka] won US Open so it’s not gonna be easy for him. I think it’s gonna be interesting next year.”
Wawrinka also felt that Murray perhaps had a good chance of sustaining his position at the top of the tree.
He said: “It’s amazing what he’s doing right now. His level his consistency, how he keeps winning, deserve completely to be No. 1 . I think it’s not only the last 12 months but maybe last 10 years he’s been trying to push more and more to be a better tennis player.
“For sure he can stay. It’s gonna be interesting to see first here, really close with Novak. He can keep that level.”
Cilic also believed that it was not enough to look at the last 12 months but the last decade. The Croatian ended a 22-match winning streak for the Brit in the Cincinnati final, now coached by former Murray team confidante Jonas Bjorkman.
He told reporters: “You have to start 10 years back. Andy has been unbelievable since he came on the tour. He was at the top of the rankings last 8, 9 years. Playing extremely well, definitely this new step for him just shows he has improved a lot in last year or 2.
“You could see he’s little bit more motivated, also [with the] smaller tournaments 500 or Masters 1000 where he really wants to win every match he can. That has been really good for him in these last 6 months. Definitely deserves to be in the position he is. We’ll see this week (if he can sustain it).
“On the other side Novak had an amazing 2015, amazing first 6 months of 2016. Hasn’t played too much in second half of the year. he’s gonna be extremely motivated as well to get to No. 1 spot. Here in London he’s done so well. Exciting to see how it plays out.”
So what of the deposed king? Djokovic has been under tremendous scrutiny these past few months, first after crashing out early in Wimbledon, stoked with rumours of personal issues. An equally crushing defeat in the opening round of the Olympics and an elbow injury that dented his Asian swing saw the tables turn for the Serbian.
However this is a surface and tournament that works well for him, so is the scene set for a comeback?
He said: “I have only words of praise for what he has achieved in the last year or so. Starting with clay court season, he was very consistent. He had best year of his life, playing three finals of three big events, winning in Rome, winning every event he played on grass including Grand slam, Olympics – he’s had an incredible run.
“Definitely well deserved No. 1 at this point. He’s been the best player of last six months without a doubt. Whether or not he can sustain not question for me. The qualities he possesses as a player, his determination to the sport, there’s a good chance that he can still play in this level for some time.”
Djokovic will open his campaign on Sunday afternoon with Murray headlining the evening session on Monday.
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