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Murray Muscles His Way Into ATP Elite

Finals 2008

Andy MurrayGetty ImagesAndy Murray has muscled his way to the top of the game.

From on-court training to lung-bursting sprints, gym and yoga studio work, Andy Murray has worked tirelessly with his dedicated team over the past 12 months to transform himself from tour danger man to a genuine contender at Tennis Masters Cup Shanghai.

We were three-sevenths of the way through what was to be the defining championship of his career thus far and everyone's head was spinning, even his own. Andy Murray had beaten Jurgen Melzer of Austria in five exhilarating sets in the US Open, having been within two points of a defeat that would have rendered so much of his back-breaking effort of the previous nine months more than a touch wasteful.

Perhaps as he stepped up to serve, at 5-5 in the third set tie-break on the Grandstand court at Flushing Meadows, trailing by two sets to love, what flashed through Murray's mind were those 400-metre interval sessions (75 seconds on the track, 75 seconds recovery time), all that core work, the Bikram yoga sessions when he put his body through hellishly punishing twists, tweaks and bends inside the exercise equivalent of a kiln. With a gutteral roar, he unleashed a 138 mph serve. Melzer was rocked back on his heels; the match had turned. Murray would go on to win in the fifth.

At match's end, he flashed his right bicep, something he had done at Wimbledon after his fourth-round victory over the Frenchman Richard Gasquet, the most momentous recovery from two sets down he had achieved before his triumph over Melzer. It was meant as a gesture not to torment the already tormented (i.e. his vanquished opponent) but to show to the team he had assembled to take care of his physical welfare that he had done all they had demanded of him, and more.

If he thought about it - and know Murray he probably has - it was also a retort to those who had shouted from the sidelines in the three years of his establishment as a professional, that he was in no physical condition to be a contender. A lot of what was said really hurt him but he recalls that it was Jean-Pierre Bruyere, a French chiropractor with whom he worked for more than a year, who offered some Voltaire-esque advice: "Don't let anyone mess with you. Take care of yourself. I don't want anyone to stop you by pushing you too hard when you're young. It's your body and your life. If you're hurt, regardless of what anyone says, don't play."

When Murray was being coached by Brad Gilbert, he was introduced to Michael Johnson, the Olympic gold medal sprinter and Mark Grabow, a fitness guru who had worked for the Golden State Warriors, a famed basketball team from California. The player delighted in such influences, each designed to push him that little bit harder to strengthen him so that various elements of his game, notably his serve, would become more potent. Murray did nothing that was being asked of him, without asking why it was being done. Satisfied, he would take it on.

The Scot was still growing and he was filling out, at the same time. Then, in Hamburg in May 2007, his right wrist gave out in one terribly explosive moment. It was a horrible event and one which, when he looks back, was a catharsis. "Maybe it would still have happened if I'd gathered a different team around me sooner," Murray recalls. "The risk is always there but perhaps it could have been reduced." And so, as Murray wondered who might coach him from November 2007 onwards, the decision was taken to employ a strong core of people who would enhance his physical well-being. He said: "Having finished that season so strongly (had Murray beaten Gasquet in the quarterfinal of the BNP Paribas Masters in Bercy, he would have qualified for the Masters Cup), I wanted to come back in even better form. There was no torture I wouldn't consider, including track work for the first time in my life."

And so the group grew to its present four - Treacle and Jez; Claggs and Needles. Treacle is Matt Little, the upbeat strength and conditioning coach who supports the London football team Charlton Athletic with a passion, whose top tip is "smile" and is in charge of Murray's fitness training, stretching routines, massage and "providing stimulating banter". Jez Green devised Murray's fitness programme - a former kick-boxer who also works for the Monte Carlo Tennis Academy, Green's ethos is "train hard, train smart, recover well". Claggs is Miles Maclagan, 33, the former British Davis Cup international, born in Zambia of Scottish antecedents, who is quiet, thorough, hard-working and tactically astute.

Maclagan had been successfully coaching various doubles teams on the ATP Tour (Paul Hanley and Kevin Ullyett) to the fore when, after the Gilbert split was confirmed, Murray asked him to join the group. One of the most likeable men in the sport, he has risen to the challenge patiently and efficiently. He was just the man Murray needed after the fire and brimstone of Gilbert. Needles is Andrew Ireland, his physiotherapist who, like Little, is loaned to Murray periodically from his work with the British LTA at the National Tennis Centre in Roehampton, south-west London.

"I never worked so hard in my life as I did during those weeks in Miami last Christmas," Murray recalls. "We went to the gym, the track, the court, the yoga studio and despite that I still put on weight because I started to eat much more than I'd ever done. I could eat 42 pieces of sushi in one sitting. I was really eating massive amounts and snacking on balance bars (Murray hates bananas, I mean, really hates them) to supplement the meals." By the time the US Open came around, when he was inside the top five, having reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon and winning his first Masters title in Cincinnati which settled his career into a fine groove, Murray paused to reflect on what his physical regimen had meant for him.

"Obviously, experience can help a lot," he said. "You know, when I played Wimbledon for the first time, I had never played four sets in my life, never mind five. I think it's understandable to be a bit tired, if you're not used to doing something before. Then you understand that you need to work on things, but for me, I did start to work hard after that. But you have to respect your body as well. And I was still doing a lot of growing. You can't push yourself too hard. It's not good for your body. Now I'm starting to grow up, and finish growing and I can do more weights and train harder. It's much easier to do all that stuff now. When you're sort of 17 and 18, I think it's tough on the body to push so hard."

As he enters the Masters Cup for the first time, Murray is at a hugely significant career crossroads. Of course he is -- and will remain for the foreseeable future -- the one hope Great Britain has of a sustained and viable future in the Davis Cup, he is the centre-piece of everything the British LTA does to promote the sport's virtues, he has a strong affinity with young children, as the popularity of the Road to Andy Murray, testifies. (There was a gathering of around 40 kids who qualified to meet him in London in September by virtue of playing performances in their own regions, at which one nine year old marched confidently up to the player and told him he ought to smile more.)

A measure of his progress into the top four in the world is that no-one is the least surprised that it has happened; but there are those who did not think it would happen quite this quickly. From the very first, he and those who spent time assisting in his development asked us not to expect him to reach full maturity in both playing and physical terms until he was 23 or 24 and we are some way from that.

He chose, somewhat controversially, to write a book entitled Andy Murray, Hitting Back. I thought it was a poor choice of title because of the assumption that he had something, or someone, to hit back at, which made one feel slightly uncomfortable for a 21 year old to be bearing so much negative force. Having read the tome, it was more compelling than I had suspected, and offers a vivid insight into the young man and what drives him.

Speaking as one who has chronicled Murray's career from the flourish of his late junior career to his flowering as the world No.4, I can say for sure that there is much more to come from someone who has done his growing up in a harsh spotlight (sometimes too harsh) and seems very unaffected by it all. He is bright, articulate (even though, as he says, he has the most boring voice in Britain), defiant and strong-willed and can back that up with what really matters -- that he is a bloody good tennis player and he knows it.

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DEUCE, DEUCE Finals 2008, Andy Murray

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