Even before he rose to become world No1, Andy Murray had slowly emerged as a leader on the tour. Not just in tennis terms, as a member of the ‘Big Four’, but in how he spoke out about issues he believed in and conversed in public with brutal honesty.
He’s taken younger players under his wing, inviting British up-and-comers to his preseason training in Miami or Dubai each year, and stuck up for troubled talents like Australian Nick Kyrgios, who seems to be constantly under-fire for one reason or another.
Having initially had a difficult time with the media and the British public early in his career due to a supposed lack of personality and surly demeanour coupled with some teenager-like tantrums on court, Murray is now considered a strong voice to be heard.
The Scottish world No1 was also elected to the ATP Player Council last June for the first time in his career.
So it came as a surprise when Murray shied away from making any leadership claims when asked about it this week in Doha.
“To be honest I don’t think I’m the best leader… in my team or anything,” Murray said in an interview with Sport360 and the Times of India on the sidelines of the Qatar Open on Sunday.
“I probably got better at it as I got older but I don’t think that’s something I’ve been particularly good at. I just think certain examples with some of the younger players, I went through a lot of the same things myself and I know how difficult that can be for a young person growing up in the spotlight with a lot of pressure and people like killing you.
“It’s not easy and you’re not taught how to deal with that at a young age.
“With Nick for example, I know Nick a little bit, I spent time with him away from the court and he’s very different to how he is in press conferences, how he is on the court, he’s not really like that. Maybe it’s a way of him dealing with the stress or the pressure.
“He hasn’t helped himself sometimes. But I don’t see myself so much as a leader.”
Not even with respect to the sport?
“I don’t think so. There’s certain things where I’ll be more passionate about, like Nick’s situation, or equal pay… things like that. When something means a lot to you it’s a lot easier to talk about it,” he explains.
Murray has been a strong advocate for equal pay in tennis saying there “should be equal pay, 100 per cent, at all combined events” when the debate was reopened following Ray Moore’s controversial comments about women’s tennis during Indian Wells last year.
He was happy to declare himself a feminist when coming to the defence of his former coach Amelie Mauresmo and had public arguments with Sergiy Stakhovsky on social media. There are other issues he wishes to address in today’s game.
“I do think that educating players from a younger age on how to handle what being a professional athlete is, because there’s more to it than what you see when you’re a junior. It does change quite a lot,” he says.
“I do think tennis could invest more money in anti-doping. If you look at the prize money now, the amount of money that’s in the sport, we could be doing more to protect it as well, that’s something that could change.
“In terms of on the court, like rule changes and stuff – I’m open to trying new things. I don’t think there’s an idea that someone’s mentioned that I thought was great or could transform the sport but I’d be open to changing some stuff. To shorten matches, if that’s what TV and sponsors want then there’s no reason why we can’t change.”
When it comes to Kyrgios, Murray has always empathised with the talented yet temperamental Aussie. Kyrgios was suspended from the ATP for tanking a match in Shanghai but there was a condition that stated his time away from the court would be shortened should he agree to see a sports psychologist.
Murray has exchanged messages with Kyrgios over the past couple of months and the Brit does not necessarily agree with the ATP’s approach to handling the situation.
“I think it should be up to the player to decide whether they need to see a sports psychologist or not. It’s not up to the ATP to be telling which players get coached by which coach and trained by which trainer. But you know, if something good has come out of it, then great, but I don’t think that should be the case in the future. But I hope that in this case it works for Nick,” says Murray.
He begins his first singles campaign of the season today in Doha, where he faces Jeremy Chardy in the Qatar Open first round.
He is carrying a 24-match winning streak from last season, which he ended as world No1 for the first time, and is hoping to keep the momentum going.
The 29-year-old had his most consistent stretch of results in the second half of last season, losing just three matches in 10 events contested (including Davis Cup) from Wimbledon onwards.
Any match against Sir Muzza is a toughie! https://t.co/g8H7UbPAz7— Nicholas Kyrgios (@NickKyrgios) January 3, 2017
What was his biggest take-away from it all?
“I had a very clear goal at the end of last year, trying to get to No1, and each week I was getting a little bit closer, that I’m able to compete – even a lot of matches I didn’t play my best but I found a way to get through, so that’s something I’ll look to continue at the beginning of this year,” he responds.
While Murray has been hounded by comparisons with his fellow ‘Big Four’ members – Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal – throughout his career, and remains well behind them when it comes to stats and records, his stellar 2016 has pushed him closer to his rivals. He was able to achieve milestones they haven’t managed to accomplish, like being the only man to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in singles. Does he feel like he’s gaining ground on them?
“I’ve always been asked about that group of players and obviously of the four players that are in it, I would have by far the worst career,” he says. “But it’s still a very good career, I just happen to be playing at a time where the guys ahead of me have been incredible. I’ve always tried to catch up, or keep up with them, and I hope that the next few years I can continue to add to what I’ve done.
“But you know finishing No1 in the world is big, in this time it was a big thing for me. I managed to achieve it and I was obviously very happy with that. But I’m aware of what my role is within those players, where I stand in it, but I’m still proud of all of my results.”