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.”
Novak Djokovic’s zen-like mood he exhibited before the tournament deserted him during a tricky first match of the season but the Serb soldiered through it to reach the Qatar Open second round on Monday.
The defending champion had to climb back from 1-5 down in the opening set before he managed to overcome an inspired Jan-Lennard Struff 7-6 (1), 6-3 in an 86-minute contest.
“I was a bit flat on my feet,” is how Djokovic described his slow start.
“I had to get more time to get the engine started I guess. It’s first match of the year. You never know how you’re going to start.
“As well as you have trained in the preparation period and the days prior to the tournament, really is different when it’s competitive play, when you start the official match and the crowd is there.”
An aggressive Struff took Djokovic by surprise, hitting big serves and groundstrokes early on while the world No2 was mistiming his shots and moving sluggishly.
A very rusty and erratic Djokovic is through 7-6 (1), 6-3 over Struff. Zeballos/Flo Mayer next. #QatarOpen— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) January 2, 2017
Even after he drew level for 5-all and then took the tiebreak comfortably, Djokovic was angry at himself in the second set before he wrapped up the victory. He takes on Argentinean Horacio Zeballos in the second round.
Djokovic has been emphasising the importance of keeping a calm and relaxed state of mind off the court in order to deal with the pressure of constantly being at the top of the sport.
He meditates, trains outdoors, and follows what he calls a “holistic approach” to his training and this season, he has a new calming factor in the form of Dusan Vemic, whom he has added as a second coach to work alongside Marian Vajda.
Vemic is a retired pro who played both singles and doubles and has worked with Djokovic briefly in the past. After parting ways with Boris Becker end of last season, the Serb has brought in his compatriot and good friend Vemic to add a more familial feel to his camp.
“He brings a lot of calmness for sure. He’s quite a calm guy. But he’s also somebody that understands the game very well,” Djokovic said of the 40-year-old Vemic.
“I’ve known him since I was five, six, seven years old. We grew up in the same tennis club. He was at the time the best player we had in the country. He was always treating me very friendly, always kind, helpful, always available for any advices.
“I think that relationship that we established at that time kind of carried on all the way to this moment. We feel very close. We are more than friends. We feel like we are family. It’s great to have him on board, because we work together in 2012 I think and ’13, and then several years we didn’t.
“Then last season he was in Miami for tournament and now he’s back as a second coach in the team officially. So I’m really glad, because I have that friendly relationship with him and also the professional relationship. It’s well balanced. Him and Marián get along very well. So keeping things very simple.”
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi runner-up and Doha’s No4 seed David Goffin navigated a rocky first set that saw him save 10 of 12 break points in before he ousted Dutchman Robin Haase 7-6 (4), 6-2.
Goffin echoed Djokovic’s sentiments about the trickiness of the first match of the season.
“It’s never easy when you start the first tournament of the season. Then you are a little bit nervous. You can feel the stress a little bit before the match,” said the Belgian world No11.
World No1 Andy Murray lost his doubles opener alongside Mariusz Fyrstenberg 6-2, 6-4 to David Marrero and Nenad Zimonjic.
Murray begins his singles campaign on Tuesday against Jeremy Chardy of France.
The Scot had said on Sunday that he considers Djokovic the greatest threat to his No1 reign. Djokovic sees Murray as his “main rival” but says it’s dangerous to only concentrate on one opponent.
“He’s No 1 in the world. Undoubtedly he’s the man out there. You know, now we have the return of Nadal and Federer that we cannot count out in any circumstances because of their history and results and the quality of players that they are,” said Djokovic.
“Surely the way 2016 went, it’s kind of expected because of the season that Murray and myself. We are kind of main rivals. But as I said, I don’t want to focus the attention only on one player, because other players deserve the attention as well.”
Egypt’s Mohamed Safwat rang the New Year in the best way possible, picking up two victories to qualify for the Qatar Open main draw in Doha.
The world No199 from Mansoura beat Japanese world No127 Taro Daniel in his first match before overcoming French world No143 Vincent Millot 6-3, 0-6, 6-2 on Sunday to advance to the main draw in the Qatari capital.
Safwat faces Belgian wildcard Arthur de Greef in the first round on Monday.
The 26-year-old believes his strong preseason training with his coach Martin Spottl in Austria is already paying dividends.
“My coach and I had put a target for myself to qualify for at least four ATP tournaments this season, so that’s one of them,” Safwat told Sport360 on Sunday in Doha.
“We had a strong preseason, worked hard all year and during the offseason and tried to improve a lot of things on both the physical and mental sides and now it’s paying off.”
Lack of funds meant Safwat has been struggling to travel full-time with a coach but he’s had Spottl regularly in his corner for the past six months.
“I’ve been working on and off with him for a long time but we’ve been able to stay together continuously since last July, write before Wimbledon,” explained Safwat.
Speaking of his qualifying campaign in Doha, the Egyptian added: “It was really hot and it was tough conditions in the first qualifying round but I fought hard. I felt like the things we’ve worked on I was able to use them well in that match.
“Today (against Millot), mentally was a challenge after losing that second set 6-0. But I managed to come back even though I was lost in the match and was telling my coach I don’t know what to do and couldn’t put one ball in the court. But I got myself back in it which shows that the work I’ve done on my mental strength is paying off so far. I’m pleased with that.”
Safwat had a solid 2016 where he was one match away from qualifying to Wimbledon and where he reached his maiden Challenger final in Morocco.
He is the highest ranked Egypt and the second-highest ranked Arab on the men’s tour.
It’s been a positive start to 2017 for Arabs in tennis as Tunisian Ons Jabeur qualified for the Shenzhen Open main draw before claiming a 6-0, 6-2 first round victory over Switzerland’s Stefanie Voegele on Monday. In the second round, the 22-year-old Jabeur takes on Nina Stojanovic, who upset fifth-seeded Hungarian Timea Babos.
Tunisian Malek Jaziri opens his Qatar Open campaign against Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber in Doha on Tuesday.