Murray Strives for #1

Steve Flink: Murray Strives for #1

Tip your hat to Andy Murray. Give him the salute he merits. Don't take what he is doing for granted. The 29-year-old standout from Great Britain is celebrating the most productive campaign of his sterling career. He just won the Shanghai Rolex Masters for the third time, toppling Roberto Bautista Agut 7-6 (1), 6-1 in the final, capturing his sixth singles title of the 2016 season, claiming a 41st career championship in the process. Murray completed an outstanding fortnight, culminating with his 13th Masters 1000 crown. The week before, he had triumphed in Beijing. In those two events combined, Murray swept 20 consecutive sets across ten efficient matches. That was work awfully well done.

By taking these two titles back to back in China, Murray has closed the gap considerably between himself and the leader Novak Djokovic in the Race to London—the annual quest for the highly coveted No. 1 spot in the Emirates ATP Rankings. Djokovic has amassed 10,600 points while Murray has garnered 9685. And so they are separated by only 915 points as the season moves down the stretch. Murray could shrink Djokovic's lead even more because he has three tournaments remaining on his 2016 schedule. He competes next week in Vienna, then goes to Paris for the BNP Paribas Masters, and wraps up his season at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London. The battle for supremacy between the two best players in the world just might go down to the wire, which is an exhilarating prospect for the sport's most astute observers.

Murray's triumph over Bautista Agut was carved out in typically perspicacious fashion. He went to work assiduously from the outset with excellent court sense and strategic acumen. Murray was exceptionally sound off both sides from the backcourt, and he wisely picked away whenever possible at the backhand side of his adversary. The Spaniard had displayed both brilliance and ingenuity off the forehand in his semifinal upset win over Djokovic, and that shot was the primary reason why he defeated the Serbian for the first time in six career head to head contests. The 28-year-old had twice provided stern opposition against Djokovic in the past, taking sets off the world No. 1 at the 2015 U.S. Open and 2016 French Open.

In Shanghai, Bautista Agut was superb against a strikingly vulnerable Djokovic, but making an impression against an unmistakably top of the line Murray was a taller task altogether. Bautista commenced the encounter with conviction, prevailing in a 21 stroke exchange with a forehand crosscourt winner. After a double fault, he released an inside out forehand winner for 30-15. He held at 30 for 1-0. Murray opened with an ace down the T in the second game. At 40-15, he sent a service winner down the T. It was 1-1. Unshaken, Bautista Agut held at love for 2-1 before Murray drew level at 2-2, dropping only one point on his delivery. Bautista Agut was taken to deuce in the fifth game, but he spectacularly advanced to game point with a backhand half volley drop shot winner off a dipping backhand pass from the British competitor. The Spaniard held on for 3-2, executing a forehand swing volley magnificently, leaving Murray unable to answer.

Now it was Murray's turn to meet a significant test head on. Serving at deuce in the sixth game, he turned to his trusted "T" serve again. Bautista barely made contact with the return. Murray followed with a sparkling inside out forehand winner, moving to 3-3. At 15-15 in the seventh game, Bautista Agut's forehand drop shot sat up, allowing Murray to reply easily with a backhand drop shot winner of his own. Murray collected the next two points with trademark deep returns, gaining the break for 4-3. Leading 40-30 in the following game, Murray double faulted, but then Bautista Agut faltered off the backhand side. Murray marched to 5-3 with another precise first serve down the T that gave the Spaniard no chance to respond.

Two games later, Murray served for the set. He was ahead, 5-4, 40-15. At that juncture, he tried to draw Bautista Agut forward with a short half volley, but the Spaniard swiftly anticipated that move, sending a backhand crosscourt, forcing Murray to retreat. The No. 2 seed missed a backhand down the line wide. At 40-30, Murray netted a two-hander off a solid yet unremarkable return. Murray came through with an ace to give himself a third set point opportunity, only to double fault it away.

Bautista Agut was not to be denied. He caught Murray off guard with a cagey chipped forehand passing shot, coaxing an error on the volley from the British player with that soft shot. Down break point now, Murray could not escape. Bautista Agut pounced on a second serve return, creating a large opening off the forehand. The Spaniard laced that shot unhesitatingly into a wide open space for a winner. He had broken back bravely for 5-5 as Murray missed six of ten first serves.

Bautista Agut did not miss a first serve in the eleventh game, holding at love with an inside out winner off the forehand. He had secured seven points in a row to take a 6-5 lead. Murray, however, was imperturbable. In a stellar twelfth game, he came forward purposefully, putting away a forehand volley for 15-0. Then the 29-year-old displayed his class as a competitor. He only needed three more swings of the racket to hold at love, serving a trio of aces to set up a tie-break.

The Spaniard went ahead 1-0 in that sequence, but a highly charged Murray swept seven points in a row from there as Bautista Agut fell into disarray. Serving at 1-2, the Spaniard made a pair of damaging unforced errors back to back, driving a forehand down the line wide, steering a backhand long under no duress. Murray rolled to 6-1 and then sealed the set with a signature backhand return winner off a second serve, taken early, angled immaculately crosscourt, produced majestically. He had closed the set as stylishly as possible.

Clearly, Bautista Agut needed that first set more than Murray. He was understandably deflated early in the second set as Murray served two aces and held at 15 for 1-0 before breaking at love for 2-0 as the Spaniard erred on a high forehand volley and then committed two unforced errors in succession off the backhand. Murray was on an inexorable path to victory, having won 19 of the last 21 points. He seemed certain to finish his task quickly, confidently and comfortably.

Briefly, though, Murray lost his emotional equilibrium, as he is prone to do so inexplicably in a multitude of matches. On the first point of the third game, Murray served an apparent ace down the T, but Bautista Agut challenged the call. The serve had narrowly missed. Bautista Agut would win that point with a let-cord winner off the backhand, and eventually the Spaniard broke at 30 as Murray badly miss-hit a forehand approach long. Murray was demonstrably unhappy about the challenge from Bautista Agut, which he felt had been made too late, arguing that the ball had already hit the back fence before his opponent questioned the call.

Rather than rolling to victory, Murray had allowed his opponent to climb back on serve. In many other phases of his career, Murray might well have held on to that self destructive aggravation, irrationally wasting energy, foolishly carrying on with his angst rather than moving past it. But, in this case, after an uplifting year of solid commitment and sustained excellence, Murray did indeed get on with his goal of winning another tennis tournament and placing himself within striking distance of Djokovic for No. 1. In turn, Bautista Agut was guilty of some glaring, self inflicted wounds.

Serving at 1-2, 15-30, the Spaniard double faulted long and then double faulted into the net. He had handed the break right back to Murray, who would not waste it this time. Murray promptly held at 30 for 4-1. And then, in the sixth game, Murray made it abundantly clear to Bautista Agut that the contest was as good as over. With Bautista Agut serving at 15-15, he lobbed over Murray's head, forcing the British warrior back to the baseline. Murray retreated, turned, and sent a beautiful backhand pass crosscourt. Bautista Agut was forced to reply defensively, and Murray scampered across the court to drive a scintillating forehand crosscourt passing shot into the clear. He followed with an inside out forehand winner. Shaken, seemingly dazed, perhaps out of ideas, Bautista Agut netted a forehand drop shot.

Murray had advanced to 5-1. He promptly closed out the match with a love hold, approaching down the line off the forehand, coming forward to put away an overhead. His 7-6 (1), 6-1 triumph was a commendable piece of business. To be sure, he had failed to serve out the first set at 5-4 and he had become unnecessarily distracted when he dropped his serve in the third game of the second set, but he bounced back impressively after both failures and played a first rate match overall.

As for Djokovic, he was appearing in his first tournament since losing in the final of the U.S. Open, and the rustiness of his game was readily apparent. He did cast aside Fabio Fognini and Vasek Posposil without undue difficulty, but then was pushed into a dangerous corner in the quarterfinals against qualifier Mischa Zverev, a 29-year-old German who had ousted Nick Kyrgios 6-3, 6-1 in a second round meeting. The week before, Kyrgios had secured the biggest title of his career, winning the ATP World Tour 500 event in Tokyo. But he behaved abysmally and hardly tried in bowing to Zverev. The mercurial Australian tanked, and has now been suspended by the ATP because he was "found to have committed the player major offense Conduct Contrary to the integrity of the Game." He had already been fined $16,500 for breaches of the ATP Code of Conduct but now the ATP has added another $25,000 to that penalty. Moreover, Kyrgios is not allowed to compete in ATP World Tour events from October 17 until January 15, 2017. However, the suspension will be reduced to three tournament weeks "upon agreement that the player enters a plan of care under the direction of a Sports Psychologist, or an equivalent plan approved by ATP, meaning Kyrgios could regain eligibility to compete on the ATP World Tour or Challenger Tour from Monday 7 November, 2016."

The hope here is that Kyrgios will use this suspension to reexamine his life as a professional tennis player and recognize that he can no longer comport himself so erratically. With the right guidance, he can still get where he needs to go. At 21, Kyrgios still has the capacity to turn his attitude around and gain the recognition that would come his way if he represents himself with more self restraint and dignity.

Be that as it may, Zverev had a superb week in Shanghai. He performed admirably across the board and was unafraid to confront Djokovic in the quarterfinals. A confirmed attacking left-hander who serve-volleyed sedulously, Zverev kept the Serbian largely at bay with his measured net rushing for the better part of two sets. Zverev—who surged from No. 110 in the world up to No. 68 this week—demonstrated that he is a player who belongs among the top 50, where he once resided.

But Djokovic revealed that since his shocking third round departure at Wimbledon against Sam Querrey, he has lost a lot of faith in himself. He was broken twice in the first set as the German lefty kept him off balance with a barrage of sliced backhands and solid play off the forehand with his compact backswing. That, coupled with his top notch volleying, put Zverev in command for a while. He even built a 2-0 second set lead before Djokovic took four of the next five games to go up a break at 4-3. Zverev fought back to force a tie-break. Djokovic took a 4-0 lead in that sequence before prevailing seven points to five. The Serbian captured 12 of 14 points to build a 3-0 final set lead and never looked back, winning 3-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3.

Having survived that scare, I believed Djokovic would approach his peak against Bautista Agut, but that was irrefutably not the case. At 4-4 in the first set, he had two break points, but the Spaniard erased the first with a gutsy forehand inside in winner. On the second, Djokovic did not get quite enough bite on a high backhand volley down the line, and Bautista Agut passed him cleanly off the forehand. In the following game, the Spaniard was fortunate. With Djokovic serving at 4-5, 30-30, Bautista Agut totally shanked a forehand topspin lob that somehow landed in the court for a freakish winner. He then broke for the set. In the second set, Djokovic twice broke back and saved three match points in the ninth game, but tightened up badly when serving at 4-5 and that cost him the match 6-4, 6-4.

They say that showdowns at the uppermost levels of the game are settled largely on the big points. At the moment, Djokovic is not performing with his usual authority in those situations. Murray is coming through regularly when it counts, and has been ever since the spring. In his last ten tournaments, the British competitor has won six titles and has made it to the final of three other events. That is why he is so close to Djokovic now in the rankings. The Serbian won six of the nine tournaments he played from the start of the season in Doha through his breakthrough victory at the French Open, when he established himself as the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to sweep four majors in a row.

But, since that Roland Garros triumph, Djokovic has won only one of his last five tournaments. And so the combination of Murray's extraordinary consistency and Djokovic's sharp diminishment of form have led to this fascinating battle for No. 1. Djokovic is not slated to compete again until the BNP Paribas Masters indoors at Paris, starting on October 31. Murray will try to add 500 points to his total by playing Vienna the week before Paris. But will his potential short term gain lead to long term pain? There is only one week off for the players between Paris and the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London, so Murray will be closing his campaign by playing three out of four weeks. In his current state of mind, performing with the same vigor, that may work. But it could just as easily backfire.

Djokovic, meanwhile, will be off for two weeks before heading into the Paris draw and will then get his break before London. In his case, the pressure will be elevated in France as he tries to widen his lead over Murray. That will be a crucial tournament for the Serbian. He needs at least a final round showing in Paris to start restoring his self esteem, to begin rebuilding his game, to rekindle his aura.

All of this will be a lot of fun to follow. Murray has never resided at No. 1 in the world, and he wants to strike gold while his game is at its optimum level. Djokovic is striving to finish at the top for the third year in a row and the fifth time in a stirring six year span. He needs to rediscover a winning mentality and close the season with a flourish. As for Andy Murray, his goal must be to simply maintain his winning ways. Those of us who follow the game avidly will celebrate the rest of this season with even more than our usual degree of enthusiasm as we observe two great players battling for an honor only one of them can attain.

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