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Murray Ready To Take Giant Stride

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Murray© Getty ImagesAndy Murray, who has had an unbroken run as British No. 1 since 10 July 2006, has learned to live with the weight of expecation from a title-starved public.

With an ATP World Tour-best six titles this year, British favourite Andy Murray has taken a big step forward over the past 12 months but how big the next stride becomes remains to be seen. 

It's been a strange year for Andy Murray.  As he prepares for his second appearance in a year-end final at the newly styled Barclays ATP World Finals at London's O2 arena, the young Scot will know that his performance amongst the world's elite will determine whether his year will end up being one of minor frustration or major celebration.

A title winning performance in London will, of course, confirm everything his admirers have been saying for so long – namely that he is a multi-Grand Slam winner in the making.

'No one needs to remind Murray that the road to the top is not getting any easier.'

But anything less will provide more ammunition than is reasonable from critics who were on his back almost as soon as he stepped onto the pro circuit.  It began after he was struck by cramps during his first ever appearance on Wimbledon's Centre Court against David Nalbandian in 2005.  Preferring to concentrate on his apparent physical frailty rather than applaud the way he had outplayed the former Wimbledon finalist for two sets, his detractors suggested his was unfit and lazy.

Quick fast forward to the US Open last year when, after more than two hours of hard-fought tennis in suffocating heat, it was the match-hardened Jurgen Melzer who needed treatment for cramps while Murray wandered around impatiently twiddling his racket.

MurrayHours of rigorous work in the gym and on the court with his team headed by Miles Maclagan and his fitness trainer Jez Green had taken care of the physical problems, which were nothing more than growing pains.  And any suggestions of laziness have been wiped away amidst the sweat and hard labour of those off-season training sessions in Miami.

But the impatience amongst his critics is still evident.  After winning ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles [at the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters] in Cincinnati and [the Mutua Madrileña Madrid Open in] Madrid last year, 2009 was ear-marked as the year for Murray to land his first Grand Slam.  As we know, it hasn't happened, although two more ATP World Tour Masters 1000 victories [at the Sony Ericsson Open] in Miami and [the Rogers Cup in] Montreal offered proof of further improvement.  However, no one needs to remind Murray that the road to the top is not getting any easier with the huge improvement evident in Juan Martin del Potro's game and the way Novak Djokovic has re-discovered his form and confidence.

But let's put a time line on this and see where Murray stands when compared to the best, i.e. Roger Federer.  The Swiss did not win his first Grand Slam championship until the age of 21 years and 11 months.  Should Murray win the Australian Open in January, he will still only be 22 years and eight months.  Of course there have been many younger first time Grand Slam winners than Federer with the 17-year-old Boris Becker at Wimbledon and another 17 year old, Michael Chang, at Roland Garros coming to mind.

But neither of them can rival Federer's record.  The argument here is not that Murray will go on to emulate everything Roger has achieved but simply that Andy is not behind schedule in attempting to do so.  Everyone develops at their own pace and, to take Chang as an example, winning at a very early age does not guarantee a career laden with Grand Slam titles.  After Roland Garros, Chang never won another one.

So the impatience is something that Murray finds slightly irksome although, such is his growing maturity, he does not make much of it.  Only when pushed in conversations with reporters he knows does he let his feelings show.

"What is it I need to do to prove that I can become a great player?."

"Those people who are still asking questions about my game – I'm not sure how to answer them," he says.  "What is it I need to do to prove that I can become a great player?  I don't know what that is.  In my view, it's been a good year.  I improved my previous best in three of the Slams; I won six tournaments; I got my ranking up to No. 2 [in the South African Airways 2009 ATP Rankings].  And, generally, I feel I am playing a lot better now than I ever did.  I was searching for consistency last year and now I feel I have that.  I don't feel that there have been any weeks where I felt my performance was a big let down."

MurrayCertainly his return to the circuit after a six-week lay-off to allow a wrist injury to heal was impressive.  He won the Valencia Open 500 to claim his sixth ATP title of the year – more than anyone on the tour.  Losing in three sets to Radek Stepanek on a tiny No. 2 court at the Bercy Palais Omnisports in the BNP Paribas Masters was certainly not a great way to end the regular season but there were mitigating circumstances.  It was 1:45 a.m. by the time he had battled his way past James Blake in the early hours of Thursday morning and he did not get to sleep until 4:00 a.m.  By six o'clock the following evening he had to be back on court.  Surprisingly he cruised through the first set 6-1 but the obdurate Czech clawed his way back to grab an unlikely victory.

"It's difficult to come back after finishing so late and feel 100 per cent," Murray admitted.  "You know, it's obviously limited recovery after a long match.  But you still come out and try to give it your best shot.  [It] wasn't good enough."

Interestingly, the tournament director, Jean-Francois Caujolle, a former Davis Cup player who knows what players go through, admitted later that the scheduling had been unfair to Murray.  "Sincerely, I believe he would not have lost that match if he had played on Court Central and if he could have finished earlier on Wednesday," said Caujolle.  "I believe Murray was the victim of our scheduling problems.  Having said that, he was extremely decent and said nothing to us about it.  He just said the other player was better than he was."

Again, his critics, who were quick to fault him for those on-court outbursts during his days with Brad Gilbert, might find it hard to believe that, behind the scenes, Murray acts with such professionalism.  It is simply in his nature to do so.  He is an intelligent young man who knows where is going and, increasingly, is realising what it takes to get there.  His year has been a big step forward. 

"It was blowing a gale up there but we seemed to survive."

Removing the Stepanek defeat from his mind was the first thing to do and he was immediately putting a positive spin on it.  "After the wrist injury I would have signed up for playing seven matches and winning six of them," he said.  "That is just the kind of preparation I needed for London.  Now I have 10 days to get rid of all the niggles and stiffness."

Prior to his appearance in Valencia, his actual practise sessions at The Queen's Club had not been as restricted as would normally be the case with an injured player - as the injury was to the left wrist.  "So it was only the two-handed backhand that I had not been able to hit," he explained.  "It gave me the chance to practise some one-handed sliced backhands and even hit a few more volleys, too!"

MurrayBack in London these past few days, everything has been progressing as Murray would have wished.  "They have laid two court at Queen's which, hopefully, will be identical to the one we will be playing on at The 02 so that has been great," he told me after descending from the London Eye, where he had been ensconced in a pod with ATP Executive Chairman & President Adam Helfant and a camera crew while he helped make the draw for the round robin stages of the Barclays ATP World Finals.

"That was an interesting experience," he said with a hint of his dry Scottish humour.

"We might have picked a less windy day.  It was blowing a gale up there but we seemed to survive."

With that he picked up his racquet bag in the lobby of the opulent County Hall Marriott, which sits across the River Thames from Big Ben, and headed off for another practise sesion at The Queen's Club.  All familiar territory for this young man who has taken a significant step forward with his career this year.  How big the next stride becomes remains to be seen.  

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