Persistence pays off for summit man Andy Murray
To say that he has had to be patient would be an understatement. Seven years, three Grand Slam titles, two Olympic gold medals and a Davis Cup conquest after he first rose to number two in the world rankings, Andy Murray has finally reached the top of the standings. Needless to say, it is a richly deserved reward for the tenacious Scot's admirable perseverance.
"I have felt the tension in recent matches. It's one thing aiming for Grand Slam victories, but trying to become world number one is something else. The number-one ranking represents 12 months of consistent results, with no letting up. Before now, I'd never managed to be consistent in my career for more than a few months' at a time, and after I'd always have a dip. That's also what happened to me in March, when I had a couple of disappointing tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami. Since then, however, I couldn't have done much better than I have. I put myself into a position to become number one."
17 August 2009. This is the date on which Andy Murray cracked the top two of the world rankings for the first time. No fewer than seven years have been and gone since then, seven long years in which he captured three Grand Slam titles, two Olympic gold medals and a Davis Cup, as well as recovering from a niggling back problem that required surgery, but still the number-one spot proved elusive. He spent a whopping 76 weeks ranked second, always finding himself behind one fellow member of the so-called Big Four or another, including being cast as an eternal bridesmaid to the all-conquering Novak Djokovic for near enough a year (49 of the last 51 weeks).
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Yet suddenly the roles have been reversed. His hunger seemingly diminished after he finally fulfilled his dream of completing the career Grand Slam by tasting glory at Roland-Garros, Djokovic's momentum stalled while Murray has put his foot on the throttle. So it is that in recent months, the Scot has triumphed at Queen's, Wimbledon, the Olympic Games, Beijing, Shanghai Vienna, Paris-Bercy and the ATP Finals, while Nole has been restricted to a solitary title, in Toronto. This explains how the Serb's once formidable lead at the top of the world standings has rapidly evaporated. Having boasted almost double Murray's ranking points tally after the French Open (16,950 compared to 8,915), he lost his ranking number 1 at Paris-Bercy, exactly five months after becoming Roland-Garros champion - Paris, the city that gives all and also takes everything back.
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"I know all about the positive dynamic he is in at the moment, when you've got the feeling that nothing can stop you," said Djokovic, with perhaps the slightest trace of envy owing to his struggles this autumn, when asked to comment on the purple patch being enjoyed by Murray, who has won 61of his last 65 matches. "We have known each other since very, very early days. We were, I think, 11 years old when we first played against each other. Undoubtedly [I have] much respect for what he has done. All I can say is that he's deservedly in the position he's in at the moment," he hastened to add.
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Highly respected coach Darren Cahill, a keen observer of the tour, believes that the long-running rivalry with Djokovic has spurred Murray on: "From Andy's point of view, even though [Roger] Federer and [Rafael] Nadal were dominating world tennis when he emerged on the scene, the player he focused his attention on was Novak. They're the same age [Murray is just a week older] and have been facing each other for a long time, although Andy spent longer on the junior circuit. Novak has always been Andy's main rival and, more than that, the yardstick against which he measured himself. And, by and large, he's always been playing catch-up."
Clay-court improvement, a key factor
No longer is Murray in Djokovic's shadow. At long last, he stands at the summit of the world rankings, a goal he was unable to achieve even when he held two Grand Slam titles simultaneously (the 2012 US Open and 2013 Wimbledon). What has got him there is a new-found consistency on clay. The biggest difference has undoubtedly come on the red dirt, where the Scot hardly lost any ground to the Serb this season (picking up 3,160 points to Djokovic's 3,610) thanks to a semi-final showing in Monte-Carlo, a runners-up finish in Madrid and a run to the title in Rome, which he followed up by making his first-ever Roland-Garros final.
Make no mistake: even if Djokovic had not endured such a spectacular slump, by his standards, in the second half of the year, Murray had sowed the seeds to launch an assault on the number-one ranking in the future (probably around next February or March) by wiping out the gulf that separated him from the rest of the Big Four on his least favourite surface. The Serb's lull has simply accelerated a process that had begun to take on an air of inevitability.
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To stop and ponder Ivan Lendl's charge's path to the top is to realise what a remarkable odyssey it has been. Few players before him have racked up such glittering achievements before first rising to number one. An unmatched example is that of Mats Wilander, who only reached the pinnacle following his seventh Grand Slam crown (the 1988 US Open), while a more recent case in point is provided by Nadal, who did not do so until after his fifth major title (Wimbledon 2008).
However, despite their impressive exploits, both were comparatively young: the Swede had just turned 24, while the Spaniard was 22. Murray, on the other hand, has claimed the throne at the age of 29 and six months, making him the oldest first-time number one since the introduction of the computer ranking system. Murray emulates Angelique Kerber, who is also the oldest WTA player to reach the number 1 this year.