As we approach the latter stages of October, the leading men in the game of tennis are working inordinately hard. They are chasing points feverishly in the Emirates ATP Race to London, giving everything they have to quality for the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London, ceding no ground. That season ending event is reserved only for the top eight players in the Race. As it currently stands, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic have already garnered their places in the elite London field. That leaves only three spots open, and realistically only six men are in contention: U.S. Open finalist Kei Nishikori, perennial contender Tomas Berdych, Andy Murray, David Ferrer, Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov.
As the players go to Basel and Valencia this week for ATP World Tour 500 events, Nishikori is in fifth place with 4,265 points. Cilic is No. 6 in the Race with 4150. He could finish the season among the top 7 in the Race. Otherwise, he would be the highest ranked Grand Slam tournament victor of 2014 to finish between No. 8 and No. 20. That guarantees Cilicwho was a worthy tournament winner in Moscow this past weeka trip to London. Meanwhile, Berdych enhanced his chances by winning his first title since 2012 by coming from behind to beat Dimitrov in a spirited three set final at Stockholm. He has 4105 points and is in seventh place. Murray is No. 8 with 3885 points, 110 points ahead of No. 9 Ferrer. Raonic is in tenth place with 3750 points and the charismatic Dimitrov is No. 11 with 3,555 points.
All six of the players fighting so furiously to make it to London are enormously arresting. It will be fascinating to follow their progress, to find out who makes or misses the cut, to watch these warriors battling down the stretch in search of a big reward after a long and debilitating 2014 campaign. But the way I look at it, the man who stands out among that distinguished cast of competitors that have not yet secured a reservation in the London field is none other than Murray.
Clearly, the year-end event would benefit immeasurably from having Murray participating. He has qualified for the tournament for six years in a row, and has thrice advanced to the semifinals. But Murray injured himself during the round robin portion of the tournament in 2011, and played only one match that year because he was hindered by a groin strain. Last year, he had back surgery in the fall and could not play despite having earned the right to do so.
The 27-year-old has endured an arduous 2014 season on many fronts. He has been remarkably consistent, joining Djokovic as the only players to reach at least the quarterfinals at all four Grand Slam events. Murray was beaten by Federer in the quarters of the Australian Open, lost to Nadal in the penultimate round at Roland Garros, was ousted in the last eight at Wimbledon by Dimitrov, and then fell in the quarters against Djokovic at the U.S. Open.
Those results reinforce how dedicated Murray had been to his craft. Murray has said on a number of occasions over the course of the season that he feels he is not that far away from the top of his game. I believe he is fundamentally right in making that assertion. Over the course of this autumn, Murray has made a concerted effort to start winning tournaments and making his presence felt in a more substantial way. He seemed not only fatigued but physically impaired at the U.S. Open after playing two very good sets at the start of that four set clash with Djokovic under the lights in New York.
And yet, ever since then he has been impressive across the board. Has he been the Murray who won the Olympics and U.S. Open in 2012, and Wimbledon in 2013? The answer is undoubtedly no, but he is setting the stage for a major reemergence in 2015. His commitment over the last month has been nothing less than remarkable. It started at the Shenzhen Open in China. In the final of that event, Murray engineered an astonishing rescue mission in his final round contest against the tenacious Spaniard Tommy Robredo. Murray dropped the first set of that encounter and trailed 2-6 in the second set tie-break. He saved four match points in succession, and later erased a fifth. Murray took that skirmish 5-7, 7-6 (9), 6-1 to win his first championship since Wimbledon the previous year.
The following week, Murray went to Beijing, where he upended U.S. Open champion Cilic 6-1, 6-4 before losing to a top of the line Djokovic 6-3, 6-4 in the semifinals. On he travelled to Shanghai for the Masters 1000 event there. Murray was beaten in that tournament by Ferrer. After a fine start, he could not contain the enterprising Spaniard, losing that round of 16 collision 2-6, 6-1, 6-2. But he cast that defeat aside swiftly this past week in Vienna, capturing the Erste Bank Open with a stirring comeback against Ferrer in the final. Murray bested the Spaniard for the 8th time in fourteen career head to head appointments, saving his best tennis for the homestretch in a 5-7, 6-2, 7-5 victory. This was Murrays 30th career singles title on the ATP World Tour, and he joins only four other active players who have earned that lofty distinction: Federer (81 titles), Nadal (64), Djokovic (46), and Lleyton Hewitt (30).
The meeting between Murray and Ferrer was fought out brutally by both players. Unsurprisingly, there were 12 service breaks in the match. Here are two of the four greatest returners in tennis, and this was a struggle for supremacy that resembled so many of their other bruising encounters. The soundness of their two-handed backhands was strikingly apparent. Each man looked for opportunities to conclude points off the forehand with extra aggression. The quest for control of the backcourt was riveting. Murray was more convincing when he was looking to dictate rallies, but Ferrer was holding his own in that department. The biggest difference between the two competitors was Murrays first serve, which was decidedly bigger and better than the Spaniards.
The 63 minute opening set could have gone either way. Serving at 2-3, Murray released an ace for 40-30, but Ferrer persisted. After Murray had saved a break point, Ferrer earned a second chance when Murray netted a forehand down the line approach. Murray erred off the forehand again, and Ferrer got the break to move ahead 4-2. The Spaniard led 30-0 in the seventh game but Murray made a fortunate winning forehand volley and then Ferrer double faulted for 30-30. Ferrers forehand wavered for the rest of that game, and Murray broke back for 3-4 and held at 15 for 4-4. In the four deuce ninth game, Murray had one crucial break point, but Ferrer saved it with an accurate serve down the T setting up a forehand winner.Ferrer held on for 5-4, but Murray was equal to the task, holding at 15 for 5-5. Ferrer held at love for 6-5, and a tie-break seemed highly likely. But that was not what happened. Murray rallied from 0-40 to 30-40, but then drove a two-hander down the line that was never in the cards. He missed badly. Ferrer had sealed the set 7-5. That was surely a considerable blow to Murrays pride; he had worked his way back into the set, but ultimately he was found wanting.
The early stages of the second set were critical for Murray. At 0-1, he was twice down break point but he worked his way assiduously out of that corner. Ferrer double faulted twice in the following game and Murray broke him for 2-1 as the Spaniard was off the mark with a forehand inside in. Murray trailed 0-40 in the fourth game, but he put away an overhead, angled a forehand winner crosscourt with a good dose of topspin, and then made it to deuce when Ferrer missed badly off the backhand. Ferrer advanced to break point for the fourth time in that game, but Murray placed a first serve precisely down the T to draw an errant forehand return from his adversary. Murray held on for 3-1, and took that set comfortably 6-2.
Murray maintained his momentum to establish a 2-0 final set lead, but an unbending Ferrer captured four games in a row. After gaining level ground at 2-2, he held at 30 for 3-2 before breaking Murray in the sixth game with a barrage of penetrating groundstrokes leading the way for an excellent forehand inside in. Murray was in trouble, and his running forehand failed. It was 4-2 for Ferrer, but he opened the seventh game with a double fault, and fell behind 0-40. He saved two break points but Murray would not be denied on the third. His flat forehand return landed deep in the court, and Ferrer was rushed into an error. Murray was back on serve at 3-4, but he drifted to 15-40 in the next game. At double break point, Murray went for a flat backhand down the line but the shot completely got away from him, travelling way beyond the baseline. Ferrer had the break for 5-3.
The Spaniard was serving for the match in the ninth game, but Murray swiftly seized the initiative, coming forward to make a sparkling backhand half volley drop shot winner. Some aggressive hitting from Murray led to a forehand mistake from Ferrer to make it 0-30. Ferrer rallied for 15-30 but then a deep backhand down the line from Murray caused Ferrer to miss another forehand: 15-40. A harried Ferrer double faulted into the net, and Murray was right back in business. Ferrer had missed all five first serves in that game. Serving at 4-5, Murray held at love with a trademark backhand down the line winner. In the eleventh game, Ferrer served ineffectively again, missing four of five first serves. Murray broke at 15 to take a 6-5 lead. He made two spectacular shots in that game: a clean forehand winner down the line for 15-30, and a supreme backhand inside in return of serve winner on break point.
Serving for the match, Murray was down 0-15 but he surged to 40-15 and then served an ace out wide in the deuce court to close out a stirring and dynamic account. He had swept 16 of the last 19 points across the last four games of the match, leaving Ferrer in an agitated state, raising his own game significantly in the closing stages. He has now won two of his last four tournaments, capturing 13 of 15 matches in that process, losing only to Djokovic and Ferrer. That must be encouraging for a fellow who has struggled so much over the past year. He is ascendant. He is admirably putting the pieces of his game back together. He is heading indisputably in the right direction.
But there is more hard work ahead for the two-time Grand Slam tournament champion. He has already played four weeks of tough and top level tournament tennis in a row. This week, he has entered Valencia as a wildcard, and, if his body can hold up and his mind remains strong and uncluttered, he could take on Ferrer in a crucial semifinal. The Valencia Open is an ATP World Tour 500 event; therefore, a lot is at stake there in the Race to London. After Valencia, only the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris remains on the schedule before London. The race this year has been the most enticing in a long while, and Murrays central role in it has been commendable. Whether he qualifies for London or not, I am convinced he has set himself up for an immensely productive year in 2015.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
<Steve Flink Archive | Email Steve