'09 could be dandy for Andy Murray

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! SportsJanuary 13, 2009

The top shelf of men's professional tennis can be a lonely place. This most individual of sports tosses aside those of weak mentality, demanding of its participants personal reserves of steely fortitude.

These athletes embark on solitary treks around the faceless courts of the ATP Tour – different cities, same white lines. It's a way of life for the game's elite, an unceasing struggle of body and mind in the chase for glory and financial reward.

So it only seems appropriate that being forced to wear one's clothes inside-out at a restaurant be a key to success.

At least for Andy Murray.

At the start of a season that will go a long way toward deciding the future balance of power in the men's game, the man with the most to gain is reinventing tennis as a team sport.

Murray is primed for an assault on the established order, the axis of dominance that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have imposed upon the rest of the field for the last few years. And he is not doing it alone.

Some time ago Murray realized it would take something above and beyond normal means to move into that kind of rarefied company. Parting ways with Andre Agassi's former coach Brad Gilbert in 2007, Murray went about gathering his own team of advisors – a revolutionary move and an impressive display of maturity from a young man regularly criticized for a demeanor that often comes across as surly.

There is a coach. There are trainers. There is a doctor. All surrounding Murray.

The results have spoken for themselves.

Murray, coming off a tournament championship last week in Qatar which included victories over both Federer and Andy Roddick, emerged last year from a pack of players hovering inside the top 10, breaking clear of the likes of Roddick, James Blake and Nikolay Davydenko en route to a world No. 4 ranking.

Along with third-ranked Novak Djokovic, the 21-year-old Murray appears to be one of only two men with the game, and most importantly the belief, to break the monopoly at the top. Surely there are obstacles, as Federer's superhuman brilliance has taken him to 13 Grand Slam titles, while Nadal's march through 2008 became one of tennis's greatest seasons.

But Murray showed much promise last season, with a run to the U.S. Open final – where he beat Nadal in the semis before losing to Federer – being the headliner of his year. There also were two Masters Series triumphs, with Murray winning five matches in six days in both Cincinnati and Madrid, evidencing his rapidly improving fitness levels.

Those reserves of strength have been honed by not one but two full-time physical trainers, Jez Green and Matt Little, as well as doctor Andy Ireland.

Then there is Miles Maclagan, a fellow Scot and former Davis Cup player who serves as Murray's coach and tactical advisor.

The group, hand-picked by Murray, is close-knit and has developed a strong camaraderie, while never losing sight of the ultimate prizes: Grand Slam success and the No. 1 ranking.

The first words out of Murray's mouth while accepting the trophy after winning his first ATP event of the year last week were to thank "my team."

That followed success in an exhibition in Dubai a week earlier, where he beat Federer and Nadal. After the tournament Murray was forced to wear his clothes inside out at a Brazilian steakhouse after losing a game of "head tennis" to Maclagan during training – though he avoided the fate of Green, who was made to wear mascara and eyeliner.

Such pranks are a staple of Team Murray. Simplicity of life, not extravagant shows of wealth, is key; Murray did buy a Range Rover after a tournament victory last year, but he allows girlfriend Kim Sears to drive it as he is yet to pass his test.

No, for Murray everything centers around tennis and the push for perfection. And the victory in Doha, Qatar, where he also won in 2008, marked a superb way to start the year. Murray now holds a 5-2 record against Federer in official events, with only Nadal able to boast a similarly strong record against the Swiss master.

But the first real chance for Murray to make his mark comes next week at the Australian Open, the first Slam of 2009. The Plexicushion surface should be to Murray's liking, though his high hopes in Melbourne last year were dashed with a first-round loss to eventual finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

In any case, it is hard to envision the champion Down Under coming from outside the Big Four. As for the season, it could be down to a Big Three.

Pete Sampras feels Djokovic, with a mountain of ranking points to defend in Australia after winning there last year, may not have the requisite consistency and mental toughness to maintain the high level of play this season.

"There are the two big guys at the top," said Sampras, winner of a record 14 Grand Slams. "I think Murray has the best chance of getting involved in that conversation."

Murray clearly believes in his ability to beat Nadal, Federer and Djokovic, and is now as feared as those three among players at the next level down – and that's to Murray's credit.

"When I get on top I am managing to stay on top for longer and not giving my opponents a chance to get back into the match," Murray said in Qatar. "Those things come with experience at this level. It has taken me a few years but I am starting to get better at it.

"If you can get ahead against players who have not as much experience as you in the bigger tournaments and keep the momentum going it is tough for them to get into the match."

For Federer, 2009 is supposed to be the year he reasserts his dominance at the top and makes a run to regain the No. 1 ranking Nadal wrested away from him last year. But Federer also knows the battle extends beyond Nadal.

"If Andy carries on playing the way he is he will have his shot at No. 1," Federer said. "I would hope, though, that if he were to become world No. 1 he would win a Grand Slam first. It took Rafa five Grand Slams before he got there.

"(Murray) has got a chance the next few years, and as the years go by I guess his chances increase because he is becoming a better player. But there are a few other guys out there who want their first Slam, not only him."

And Murray clearly wants a Slam, but he'd "settle" for being top dog and claiming the No. 1 rank.

"I would like to win a Slam but I think anybody who gets to world No. 1 will have shown great consistency and deserves to be there," Murray said. "If you reach the top at anything you do it is something to be proud of."