Now that Novak Djokovic appears to have silenced any speculation about who might finish No. 1 in 2015 (before that conversation has even taken wing), maybe we should look at the next most logical question: Who is going to end up No. 2?
Alright, it doesn’t have quite the same ring. Still, three men with hard-court chops aplenty are in the hunt and could conceivably bump Roger Federer (9,665 ranking points) from his lofty perch right behind Djokovic (13,845 points): No. 3 Andy Murray (7,840 points), No. 4 Stan Wawrinka (5,790 points), and No. 5 Kei Nishikori (5,525 points). Murray and Wawrinka have won Grand Slam titles on hard courts, while Nishikori was a finalist at last year’s U.S. Open and counts outdoor hard his best surface.
Realistically, though, unless Federer decides to chuck it all and open a bait-and-beer store on the shores of Lake Geneva, the only player likely to sneak in ahead of him by year’s end is Murray. If he can pull that off, Murray would finish a season at No. 2 for the first time in his career (he reached the second spot on the ladder briefly in 2009, and again in 2013) and cap what is shaping up as yet another resurgence for a man whose career has had more peaks and valleys than the Scottish Highlands.
But while this latest comeback has been perhaps his most persuasive thus far, as evidenced by his unprecedented success on clay, it has also attracted relatively little attention. Even the British, who count Murray as one of their own, seem to have been focused elsewhere this year—bewitched by the legerdemain of Federer, the commanding expertise of Djokovic, and the woeful saga of struggling Rafael Nadal.
Sure, there’s this whole Big Four thing. But sometimes that seems more like the old gag about the WCT Tour’s original “Handsome Eight” really being “The Handsome Seven and Tony Roche.” Here, it’s the “Big Three and Andy Murray.”
There’s some truth in that slight. After all, Murray’s cumulative record against the trio he’s lumped together with is 25-47. More to the point, he’s lost four straight matches to Federer, his last eight to Djokovic, and he’s 3-3 in his last six against floundering Nadal.
But that’s also where flying under the radar, the way Murray has been doing most of this year, can be an advantage. It eases the pressure, and now, as the temperature and humidity index rises, Murray seems ready to make a run. Don’t think he isn’t thinking along those lines, either.
This week, Murray showed up in Washington D.C. almost a full week early to prepare for his first summer tournament—and not only to check that White House tour off his bucket list.
“I haven’t hit a ball on a hard court since Miami. That’s in March, so it’s been four or five months,” Murray told the ATP media staff last week. “The conditions are humid (in D.C.). It takes a long time to get used to it, which is why I arrived on Tuesday. It’s the earliest I’ve arrived for any event the whole year.”
While the early bird was preparing to pull 500 ranking points from the D.C. worm hole, Federer decided to take a pass on the first summer Masters event, the Rogers Cup in Montreal, and will sacrifice the 600 runner-up points he earned as the tournament runner-up last year.
Presently, Murray trails Federer by just 1,825 points. In addition to his Canada points, Federer is defending a title in Cincinnati and a U.S. Open semifinal. Murray, by contrast, is defending quarterfinal finishes at those three events. He can gain substantial ground on Federer, and he’s designed for the conditions he’ll find in the coming weeks.
Murray seems a bit of a masochist; it’s evident in the way he berates himself (perfectionism is a great enabler for self-punishment). He also seems to have a deep-rooted need to put himself into precarious situations, only to work himself back out—unless he cannot. It’s hard slogging being a Murray fan, because you never know when he’s going to run off the rails and plunge right into Meltdown Creek.
You wouldn’t think a player with that kind of profile would do well under the tough, sometimes suffocating conditions of the summer hard-court circuit, but perhaps that’s where Murray’s masochistic streak is an asset. Whatever the reason, summertime is Murray time. Come August, and he’s Big Four material all the way, having won Cincinnati and Canada two times apiece.
The key to understanding why Murray habitually plays so well in the second half of the season may well lie in the end of the first half, at Wimbledon. Given his relationship to that tournament, it’s impossible to imagine that Murray’s life doesn’t change dramatically every year when it’s finally over. It isn’t often remarked upon, but from day one, Murray has handled the pressure of being the great British hope with tremendous aplomb, as well as all the success a reasonable person can ask.
Yet, perhaps because Murray is a phlegmatic fellow outside the crucible of competition, you don’t hear much about how liberated he must feel once Wimbledon is finally over. Besides, summer is vacation time anyway. So who knows who buoyant Murray feels as he leaves behind the annual Wimbledon experience and all it entails? Sure, it’s a working vacation for him in North America, but he’s known a lot of success there and that can’t hurt, especially in years when Wimbledon has been disappointing.
This year at Wimbledon, Murray was thumped in straight sets in the semifinals by Federer. It was The Mighty Fed, but straight sets is never fun. So bring on Montreal; let’s have a ball in Cincy again. Hello, U.S. Open.
And then there’s the fall. Federer played all of three events last year, not including the ATP World Tour Finals. Murray, by contrast, played like his hair was on fire. He logged seven events in a frantic, successful effort to make the season-ending championships—where Federer humiliated him in the round-robin stage, 6-0, 6-1.
Murray had his reasons for undertaking that brutal death march to London, and it’s unlikely he’ll need, never mind want, to reprise it this year. But he’s still likely to be a formidable presence in the fall, the segment of the season during which he’s won nine of his 34 singles titles.
In the big picture, Federer may have no great reason to panic—No. 2, No. 3, what’s the difference, if you’re not No. 1? Been there, done that.
But for Murray, reaching No. 2 would constitute a career high, renewed validation of his place among the Big Four, and it would position him for the same mission that must be on every ATP pro’s mind—making a run at Djokovic’s top ranking in 2016.