This year was always going to be a tough season for Andy Murray. Between the back surgery he underwent end of 2013 and his split with his coach and mentor Ivan Lendl in March, the world No6 was – putting it mildly – dealt a tough hand.
The grit he showed in fighting to qualify for the ATP World Tour Finals in London was admirable but still, the fact remains that Murray accumulated a woeful 0-9 record against tennis’ ‘Big Three’ of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in 2014, and closed out his season with an embarrassing 6-0, 6-1 defeat to Federer.
His season finale was a brutal wake-up call. It wasn’t like a mobile phone alarm ringing or even having cold water splashed on your face to get up. This was a sledgehammer to the head. And how Murray rebounds from this reality check in 2015 could either establish him as one of the sport’s greats, or humble him deeper into mediocrity.
For someone who has had a relatively bad year, Murray still managed to reach the quarters at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open and the semis at Roland Garros.
In spite of everything, he made sure he was one of the remaining eight players in each of the four majors this season but when he did reach the closing stages of a grand slam, he was repeatedly outclassed (by Federer in Melbourne, Nadal in Paris, Grigor Dimitrov at Wimbledon, Djokovic in New York).
As the season progressed, Murray remained title-less since Wimbledon in 2013 and when he finally broke his drought, it came at an obscure ATP 250 event in Shenzhen where the average ranking of the four players he defeated was 86. But still, a trophy is a trophy and it sparked some fight in the Scot, who went on to capture two more titles, albeit in Vienna and Valencia – hardly the biggest highlights of an ATP season.
But it was essential for Murray’s own good to qualify to London because it helped him realise the gulf that has developed between himself and Djokovic and Federer.
He himself said that he would rather not forget that painful beatdown he got from the Swiss and that he will use it to focus on how much work needs to be done in the offseason.
It would have been misleading had he not gone to London and finished his year with those wins over Tommy Robredo, where he saved 10 match points against the Spaniard over two finals. He would have felt good about himself but he wouldn’t have been aware of how far he was from the top guys’ level.
For now, it’s important for everyone to realise that with Murray, things always take time in comparison to the ‘Big Three’. Let’s not forget that it took him four grand slam final defeats before he won his first major. Even the way he constructs a point during a match feels like a long and elaborate strategic plan.
While Nadal can return from a seven-month injury layoff and reach nine consecutive finals, with Murray it is simply not like that and it’s unfair to compare.
One key ingredient next year will be getting comfortable once again with his coaching set-up whether it is with Amelie Mauresmo or someone else.
It’s a fact that Djokovic and Federer appear to be at a completely different level at the moment, but given time, there’s no reason Murray can’t reclaim his place at the top and turn the ‘Big Three’ into a four once again.
Novak Djokovic survived his first serious test of the ATP Tour Finals as the world number one advanced to the final with a 6-1, 3-6, 6-0 victory over Japan's Kei Nishikori on Saturday.
Djokovic had swept through the group stage at London's O2 Arena in imperious style, but he was pushed harder by Nishikori, who became the first player to take a set off him this week, before a strong finish secured the Serb's fourth appearance in the final of the prestigious season-ending event.
The 27-year-old has now won 31 successive indoor matches, including 14 at the Tour Finals, and his final opponent will be either six-time champion Roger Federer or Stan Wawrinka, who meet in an all-Swiss semi-final later on Saturday.
Novak Djokovic was at his imperious best as he sealed the year-end world number one spot and advanced to the semi-finals of the ATP Tour Finals with a 6-2, 6-2 thrashing of Tomas Berdych on Friday.
Djokovic finishes on top of the rankings for the third time in four seasons and is only the seventh player to hold first place at the end of the calendar year on at least three occasions.
The Serb’s third successive victory at the prestigious season-ending event at London’s O2 Arena ensured he won Group A and will face Japan’s Kei Nishikori in Saturday’s semi-finals.
The second semi-final will be an all-Swiss affair after Stan Wawrinka’s 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 victory against US Open champion Marin Cilic booked a clash with six-time winner Roger Federer.
The number one ranking was a fitting reward for Djokovic’s remarkable consistency during a year in which he won Wimbledon, reached the French Open final and claimed five other titles.
“It’s been a long year, a long season, it’s an incredible achievement and I want to thank my team and my family and all the people who supported me,” Djokovic said.
“I’m aware that being number one in the world is the biggest challenge a tennis player can have. It’s an incredible feeling and I’m very happy.
“This was definitely one of the best performances. I hoped I could continue the way I played in the first two matches.”
— Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) November 14, 2014
The complex formula used to determine the group standings meant world number four Wawrinka knew he only needed to win three games against Cilic to be guaranteed to finish as Group A runner-up.
The Australian Open champion, who also made the semis last year, wasted little time taking three of the first four games and eventually clinched his second win of the tournament.
“It was a tough match, it’s never easy to play against Marin, he’s been having an amazing year,” Wawrinka said.
“I hope I can get a little bit of support because I know people love Roger here. It’s going to be tough for me, but I need to trust myself and go for it.”
Meanwhile, with top spot wrapped up, Djokovic can focus on becoming the first player to win the Tour Finals three years in a row since Ivan Lendl in the 1980s.
Few would bet against him after he lost a combined nine games during his three majestic group victories.
It is the 11th consecutive year that one of Djokovic, Federer and Rafael Nadal has finished on top of the rankings.
And, after Federer’s brilliant demolition of Andy Murray for the loss of only one game on Thursday, it was Djokovic’s turn to showcase the current gap that exists between the big three and the rest of their rivals.
The 27-year-old had looked untouchable in his routs of Marin Cilic and Stan Wawrinka and he continued to dominate against Berdych, who had lost 16 of his 18 meetings with the Serb.
Djokovic’s remarkably agile movement when forced to defend meant there was no chance of Berdych out-hitting him from the baseline and the Czech was soon left shaking his head in frustration as he was broken twice in the first three games.
Although the world number seven finally got on the scoreboard after losing the first four games, it was too late to stop Djokovic clinching the set and with it his place in the last four.
As a former Wimbledon finalist, Berdych is hardly a no-hoper, but he was unable to stem the tide and Djokovic broke again in the opening game of the second set.
Another break in the third game effectively ended the contest and it wasn’t long before Djokovic was celebrating his 30th successive win in indoor matches with a triumphant group hug with coach Boris Becker and his backroom staff.