The Mail On Sunday
from challenge of meeting world No 1
ANDY MURRAY is breaking sweat on the shore of Lake Geneva in readiness for this week’s meeting with Roger Federer, the man destined to become the greatest tennis player of all time.
Murray, 18, may not have illuminated the summer skyline as spectacularly as Freddie Flintoff or Kevin Pietersen, but his breakthrough on to the world stage is real enough.
His life since he made a formidable entrance at Wimbledon has been lived at fast-forward. John McEnroe, who practised with the Scot during the recent US Open, forecasts that Murray, ranked 111 in the world, will be inside the top 20 by the end of next year.
The learning curve is poised to move steeply upwards in Geneva, when Federer is assured of a homecoming hero’s reception on Friday as he leads Switzerland against Britain in the Davis Cup, when the winners stay in the World Group and the losers will be banished to Zonal Group One.
‘It’s not every day you have the chance to play against the World No 1, so it’s something I’m very excited about,’ said Murray, who belongs to the generation of British sportsmen unafflicted by inhibition, unmoved by reputation. ‘I think we’re going to win 3-2.’
Britain’s captain, Jeremy Bates, is wisely keeping counsel on who he will select to play in the opening singles, but with Federer also widely expected to make a rare appearance in the doubles rubber, Murray is liable to come into conflict with him. Bates’s faith in the teenager is absolute. ‘You either grow in the environment of Wimbledon or the Davis Cup or you shrink,’ he said. ‘Andy is a foot taller than he was six months ago.’ That view is endorsed by Greg Rusedski, revelling in his role as the elder statesman of British tennis. ‘When Tim (Henman) and I go away from the game, Andy will be up at the top for a long time,’ said Rusedski. ‘Andy’s got a great attitude, he gives 100 per cent from the first ball to the last. He’s already fitter than he was, but you have to remember that he’s growing into his body.’
Murray, who became the youngest Davis Cup player in British history when he partnered David Sherwood to a magnificent win over highly-ranked Israelis Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram in March, will definitely feature in one of the singles rubbers, where the British team have targeted Swiss No 2 Stanislas Wawrinka as vulnerable. ‘That win in Israel is one of the best memories of my life,’ said Murray. ‘It is an incredible feeling to play for your country.’
He is in relaxed mood, his alliance with Rusedski strong, his place within a young team featuring Alan Mackin, Sherwood and sparring partner Jamie Baker of growing significance.
‘Greg has a lot of experience and is one of the most knowledgeable players in the game,’ added Murray. ‘He goes into a lot of detail and willingly gives me advice when I need it.’
Other voices have been less encouraging, nagging him to the point of visible irritation. Murray’s level of fitness has been questioned, with critics scornful of the manner in which he cramped in the fifth set against David Nalbandian at Wimbledon and again during the climax of his marathon second-round match at the US Open with Arnaud Clement.
The youngster is tired and confused at having continually to defend himself. ‘A few people have to realise I’ve just turned 18,’ he said. ‘It is unusual for someone to fully develop before they are 21 — unless you are completely different like Rafael Nadal (who won the French Open at 19 this summer). I have just played for 10 weeks in a row in North America, won two tournaments playing at least two matches a week, and travelled thousands of miles. I can’t be too unfit.
‘I do get disappointed when some people cannot accept when someone is doing well. Yes, I struggled in a couple of five-set matches, but I also won one against a guy who has been as high as No 15 in the world. But when you look at the matches where I cramped, there is no sign of me being distressed the point before I went down. And it wasn’t as if I finished the match feeling like death.
‘I don’t think people can question my work-rate. I work very hard. My tennis is improving but, of course, I know I have to get physically stronger. That’s
normal for anyone my age.’ Over the winter, Murray is arranging to work with Frank ****, who previously trained Boris Becker, as well as worldclass athletes like Linford Christie and Denise Lewis. Murray will also visit a French clinic to have blood, urine and sweat samples analysed. ‘I want to establish if there is a reason why I’m prone to getting cramp,’ he explained.
McEnroe’s friendship with Murray is tangible evidence of the teenager’s rise. A man who still rages for perfection is not tolerant of fools or those who take short cuts.
‘I asked if he would hit with me in New York because I respect his opinion so much as he has been around the game for so long,’ said Murray, no stranger to the odd emotional outburst on court. ‘I’m nowhere near as bad as John! He was getting pretty angry when I was practising with him, in fact. He was complaining he’d been in the commentators’ box all day and his back was still sore. Maybe, I just rattled him a bit ...’ Murray smiled at the memory. ‘I prefer to listen to John’s thoughts rather than a lot of others. He’s a legend of the game.’
Rusedski’s decision to remain loyal to the Davis Cup after Henman opted to retire from international duty at the beginning of this year is proving pivotal to Murray’s development.
Bates said: ‘I can’t say enough about what it means to have Greg in the team, a top player endorsing our message is like a dream come true.’
In practice on Friday, Rusedski exhibited the enthusiasm of a teenager, not a man just passed his 32nd birthday and looking forward to fatherhood in four months.
‘I love Davis Cup and I want to be involved with the younger players coming along,’ said Rusedski, who has painstakingly reconstructed his career after the trauma of being falsely accused of taking a banned substance two years ago.
‘I’ve had 18 months without injury — or controversy — and I feel like I did in my early 20s. The Swiss obviously put down a clay court to meet Wawrinka’s strengths — Federer can play on any surface — but I have beaten him on the two occasions we’ve met.’
British strategy is dependent on Rusedski beating Wawrinka on the first day. Rusedski has had a superb summer, winning in Newport, Rhode Island, and making semi-finals in two Masters tournaments, enabling him to climb back to No 29, one place behind Henman.
‘I don’t know if Tim finds it amusing that I’m on his tail again, but I like my chances of finishing as British No 1 for the first time in eight years,’ he said.
Rusedski concluded practice on Friday, playfully hitting with a sevenyear-old local girl as Murray collected his rackets, counting down the days until the mission against Federer and Co begins in earnest.
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