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As the men's tennis season nears its end, the wiry Scot can finally afford to smile. It has been a long time coming for Andy Murray.
Andy Murray talks slowly. His sentences are often punctuated with pauses, 'aaahhs' and 'uhhmss'. Very unlike the way he plays his tennis - fast and furious. Recently at the Shanghai Rolex Masters 1000, the best counterpuncher going in men's tennis came up short in a marathon three-setter against Novak Djokovic in which the Brit had enough chances to close the match in straight sets. Murray arrived at the postmatch media briefing in peach-coloured sweats, relaxed gait and a hint of a smile tugging at his lips. A picture of calm, matched only by the newly acquired philosophical attitude. These days the mop-haired, mercurial boy from Dunblane in Scotland carries his losses lightly. There's fair reason for that: His triumph at Flushing Meadows in September which gave the 25-year-old his maiden Grand Slam title.
Said Murray, "I'm obviously disappointed I lost the match. But, I've lost tougher matches in the past and I've recovered from those. Look, it was a top quality tennis match, both of us played some unbelievable tennis. The difference between winning and losing the match was one or two centimetres. You have to put things in perspective. It was frustrating, but it was so close, it could've been an entirely different outcome. Winning the US Open probably helped a bit with being able to deal with the loss better. "
A couple of images from the summer stand out which underline Murray's journey from contender to champion. When the world No. 3 lost his fourth successive Grand Slam final, this time to Roger Federer at Wimbledon in July, Murray was inconsolable, sobbing before a full house at Church Road that cried along with him. The doubts that hung over centre court that evening, much like the dark clouds above, raised a disturbing, but muted question: Did the British No. 1 have it in him to win a Grand Slam title, competing as he was in the era of champions. Murray came up with a fitting answer three weeks later, blitzing a hapless Federer in the final of the 2012 London Olympics on the very court the 31-year-old had reduced him to tears not so long ago.
Murray's early passage as a tennis pro that culminated with his triumph in New York a month ago began late in the 2008 season when he broke into the top-five for the first time as a wide-eyed 21-year-old. He took stock of his play as soon as he crashed into the top-tier, methodically working on his game from fitness to forehand, serves to staying power and explosiveness to that newly unravelled aggressive quality in his backcourt game.
Things have fallen in place wonderfully for Murray in the 2012 season. He made the semifinals of the Australian Open, where he put up a memorable show against Djokovic, which was followed by his stirring run on the lawns of the All England Club and topped by sizzling fall season. While it was Murray who put the bricks in place, tennis legend Ivan Lendl, who the Scot signed on as coach at the start of the season, helped put the finishing touches. In many ways theirs is a match made by the gods. Their personalities mesh, as does the stubborn character of their strokeplay. Lendl's heavily spun backcourt play may have marked him as a baseliner, but he was a counterpuncher in attitude. The Czech-born American, who struggled equally at the start of his career, earning the tag of choker, also lost his first four Grand Slam finals before clinching his maiden Slam title in the French Open in 1984, rallying to beat his one-time nemesis American John McEnroe, after dropping the first two sets. Then after declaring that grass was for cows the poker-faced 52-year-old made two finals at Church Road, but failed to win a title there, despite meticulous planning and tireless effort. You could call it unfinished business.
Lendl, maybe managing the golfing adventures of his young daughters aged between 22 and 14, but he seems to be reliving his career through Murray;so much so that his is the immovable presence at courtside during majors that the world No. 3 looks up to.
"We speak about everything that has to do with my tennis career, " Murray said of his relationship with Lendl, "It was only a small percentage that I needed to improve and change, and he has definitely helped with that. He gave me a bit of extra confidence, extra belief. We worked hard on a lot of things and I trusted what he said. He brought a lot of experience not just to me, but to the rest of the guys (on the team). It's hard to put it into numbers, say exactly how much he has helped. I also have to remember all the stuff that I'd done before. I had got close before. But getting over that final hurdle, I probably needed someone like him to help with that. "
Federer, the world No. 1, said that the British ace was a more confident player now. "He's playing more freely. He's at his prime, playing his absolute best. He has been playing well for a few years now, not just six months. "
Djokovic, who is the closest in age to Murray among the top four, born as they are just one week apart, noted that the Scot's game is more aggressive now. The Serb said: "He's definitely a different player this year. He goes more for his forehand, which wasn't his strength in the past. This year he has improved that stroke and he's more confident on the court, has more self-belief. He's definitely a danger to anybody on any surface. "
Djokovic and Murray, born in Belgrade and Dunblane in the summer of '87, share a curious friendship. They've known and played each other since their pre-teens and even practiced together at tournaments these days. Murray said, "There's obviously going to be a chance that we might play each other in a tournament if we both go deep. He's been incredibly consistent. So I know that if I get to the latter stage of the event, there's a good chance I'll play him. It's good preparation for us to practice with each other. We try not to give too much away in practice. "
"I'd say we're friends, " Murray said of the relationship, "I've known him for 14-15 years now. I've never had any problems with him on the court or off it. We've had some incredibly tough matches over the years which can test a friendship, but we've always been respectful of each other. We're friends, but we can't be spending loads of time together off the court, going out for dinner and stuff 'cause, you know, you don't want to get too close to guys you're competing with in massive matches. "
The Murray-Djokovic face-off is already being tipped as the rivalry of the future. They've met 16 times, with the younger and more decorated Djokovic, with five Grand Slam titles, leading the head-to-head 9-7. The Serb pointed to an incredible 2012 season, where the duo split matches, the score standing at 3-3, as a sign of things to come. He said, "We get to play these big matches and we put up a show for people. It's exciting to be part of such an extraordinary rivalry, especially with somebody that you grew up with and you know for a long time. It's going to be interesting to see what happens in the next couple of years. "
Murray, who was seen as something of a weak link, the one most likely to fall among the top four until he won his first Grand Slam title in September, is marked as the chaser in the rivalry. Djokovic, however, rejected the tag for his friend and rival. "I can't really say who is the chaser, " he said, "I think we both focus on our careers individually and we both try to improve each day. His is the right example of how an athlete seeks to improve, get better always. It's great for the sport. I think we're experiencing maybe the best era of all-time. "
Murray, who said he wasn't much of a reader, not having read a book since he was about 14 or 15, when he had got halfway through a Harry Potter before giving up on it, however, has been clinical in decoding the game's of his rivals. Murray said Djokovic is the benchmark for the young generation, the player everyone is looking to catch-up with. Murray may have lost out on the adventure of witchcraft and wizardry when growing up, but he's well on his way in tennis' walk of fame. "Novak has been at the top of the game. He's likely to finish No. 1 this year too, that will make it two years in a row. Of course, the No. 1 player in the world is what you want to get to, " he said, making clear his intent.
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