In the wake of another worryingly routine defeat by Novak Djokovic – his 21st in 30 meetings – Andy Murray will not be inclined to celebrate what has been an otherwise wonderful season and which he could conclude by making a little more history.
Djokovic is a man apart in tennis and, but for rare dips, has been so for a couple of seasons. In France on Sunday, he won his 22nd match in a row, taking just over an hour and a half to beat Murray 6-2, 6-4 to secure his 10th title of the year from 14 finals, and a fourth Paris Masters triumph.
Murray, however, should leave Paris at least pleased to be within touching distance of the world No1. He beat him in Montreal, to end a depressing losing run and will be motivated to do so again in London at the ATP World Tour Finals, starting on 15 November, because victory there would lift him to No2 in the world above Roger Federer – which would help him in the draw at the Australian Open in January.
There are other incentives to lift Murray’s spirits.
Fred Perry’s remaining monument in the history of tennis, as architect with Bunny Austin of Great Britain’s last Davis Cup title – against Australia at Wimbledon three years before the outbreak of the second world war – is ready for dismantling in Ghent in three weeks’ time and Murray, like Perry before him, will bear the greater burden.
“Perry is someone I’ve never met but is relevant in my career,” Murray said after winning Wimbledon two years ago. “His is a name I’ve heard so much through my career. Shame I never got to meet him.”
At least they are side by side in the record books. The Scot has been for years, and will remain so until he retires, the fulcrum of a squad who, with all respect to the other players, would have struggled to return to the world group without him, let alone beat the USA, France and Australia on their way to this year’s final against Belgium.
It is easy to underplay what Murray has done for the British game. His contribution has been long-term and hard-earned. It was his breakthrough wins at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows, as well as at London 2012, after years of high-level winter training in Miami, that restored pride in a sport that had declined to the point of serial ridicule. He has maintained a staggering level of excellence since ascending those summits.
This year he also finally cracked the conundrum of clay beating that surface’s master, Rafael Nadal, for only his second red dirt title, in Madrid, a week after winning in Munich. It was an encouraging run of consistency, matching his exhausting finish to the 2014 season, when he strained at the limits of his physical and mental powers to make the ATP World Tour Finals.
What a difference a year makes. Only Djokovic and Federer are in front of him this time – yet Murray was unsure if he would play in Greenwich until last week, so strong is his determination to win the Davis Cup and so worried was he about his ability to fine-tune his game in switching from hardcourt to clay in the space of a week.
The real stumbling block for Murray is not his own game but, frankly, the strength of the supporting cast. The second singles spot in the team is the enduring point of vulnerability for Great Britain should Murray slip up or the doubles not go to plan. For those clinging to the slim notion that back-up singles will go to the second-best British singles player, Aljaz Bedene, there are glum signs.
While Bedene supporters have been casting their gaze towards Prague on 16 and 17 November, when the Slovenia-born player hopes to convince the International Tennis Federation at its AGM that he should be allowed to play for his adopted country, the man who picks the team, Leon Smith, will still be in South America, where he has been watching James Ward and Kyle Edmund perform on clay.
Furthermore, the squad for Ghent will be announced in London on 17 November, the day Bedene expects to hear the ITF’s decision, but Smith does not return from his reconnoitre until the following day. So it is clear the captain has resigned himself to ignoring the claims of the rising world No49, despite an admiration for his tennis. That, or he has been told unofficially Bedene’s bid is doomed.
There is an omen of minor note: the year Perry led Great Britain to victory for the third time, 1936, the FA Cup holders were Arsenal, the team with which he trained; they are, of course, the current holders – and Murray’s London team.
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