“I still feel that my best years are ahead,” said Andy Murray this summer, during a sponsor appearance at the Thruxton race track in Hampshire. History and precedent were against him, because only one man in the modern era – Andre Agassi – has won multiple Grand Slam titles after his 30th birthday. Murray turned 29 in May.
Yet from that moment in early June when he made his claim, standing alongside the WWII aircraft hangars at the side of the track, Murray produced the most dominant sequence of his career. The statistics were extraordinary. Going into next week’s Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, he has lost just three matches since Roland Garros. In a twist that no one would have predicted, he wiped out the 8,035-point lead held by Novak Djokovic at the start of the grass-court season, and on Monday, 7 November moved to No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings.
For a man who had spent the last decade in the slipstream of three even more successful players – in Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic – this was a gratifying and long-awaited moment. “It’s something I never expected to do, never thought I was going to do,” said Murray. “When you’re behind the guys that I was behind, it’s difficult to keep believing, keep working to try to get there. I think that’s the most satisfying thing, because of how good the guys around me have been.”
The magical run started when Murray notched his fifth Queen’s title in June – an achievement that nobody else has matched after more than a century of competition. Then he cantered through Wimbledon, beating Milos Raonic in a one-sided final, and topped the whole thing off with an Olympic gold medal in Rio de Janeiro. Surging through the autumn, he has won his last four tournaments, in Beijing, Shanghai, Vienna and Paris, so taking his portfolio for 2016 to eight titles, which is a personal record for one season.
How do we explain this avalanche of success? Amateur psychologists identified his newfound status as a doting father (of Sophia Olivia, born on 7 February) as a spur for success.
Pure tennisheads, meanwhile, were more inclined to credit Ivan Lendl, the Czech hard case who had overseen the previous blossoming of Murray’s full potential in 2012 and 2013. Had it not been the announcement of Lendl’s return, the day before Queen’s, that set off that extraordinary second half of the season? At the same time, though, don’t we sometimes ascribe too much importance to coaches? Wasn’t there an element of truth behind Murray’s sly comment, in his speech after the Wimbledon final, that Lendl had just been “lucky” in the timing of his return?
After all, it was the player himself who had spent the 2015-16 off-season rebuilding his service action – a key ingredient of his mid-season surge. As a result, Murray was clocked at 141mph during his fourth-round match against Grigor Dimitrov at the US Open, which is believed to be the fastest of his career. Even more crucially, he can regularly approach 100mph on his second delivery, eliminating the one weakness that most of his opponents have targeted over the past decade.
Murray has many strengths as a player but this constant thirst for improvement, even at this mature stage of his career, is a trademark. His mastery of tactics applies not only to patterns of play, but to the way he has constructed his own career. Just look at his bold decision to travel to Spain at the age of 15, where 18 months at the Sanchez-Casal Academy taught him to fend for himself. Or at his pursuit of Lendl. Many players would have shied away from engaging the ruthless taskmaster with the basilisk stare. Murray has done so twice.
The true measure of his progress this year was the sheer consistency that he produced on the ATP World Tour. As Murray said himself: “Getting to No. 1 is about 12 months of work. I have never done that before. In my career, I have had periods where I have been consistent for a few months at a time and then drop-offs. Whereas, this year, barring the month in March, I couldn’t have done much better.”
So what of Murray’s prospects at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals? As a local who can drive into North Greenwich from his Surrey home in less than an hour, he might be expected to prosper at this tournament. As well as home fans, it offers a rock-and-roll vibe. Yet his record, since the tournament moved to London in 2009, has been curiously intermittent.
There was the great semi-final against Nadal in 2010, which Nadal took 8-6 in the deciding tie-break. And another semi-final against Federer two years later. Otherwise, though, Murray has returned a moderate win-loss record of 11-11, and has also struggled physically at this late stage of the season.
One of Murray’s most memorable moments at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals came two years ago. He was lounging on his sofa, lost in a round of the Mario Kart video game, when he received a phone call from Chris Kermode, the ATP Executive Chairman and President. Could he sub in for Federer, who had been forced to pull out of his final against Djokovic with back trouble? Murray jumped straight in the car and performed exhibition singles and doubles without asking for payment.
That fine gesture showed Murray’s true colours. Perhaps this will be the year when he claims the giant octagonal cup – that would be a belated reward for the man whose best years could still be ahead of him.