Andy Murray's Easy Path in Vienna Setting Up Battle for No. 1 Ranking

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistOctober 28, 2016

Britain's Andy Murray reacts after winning the tennis match against France's Gilles Simon during the ATP Tennis tournament in Vienna, Austria, October 27, 2016. / AFP / APA / GEORG HOCHMUTH / Austria OUT        (Photo credit should read GEORG HOCHMUTH/AFP/Getty Images)
GEORG HOCHMUTH/Getty Images

Andy Murray has never had an easy time achieving legacy benchmarks, but the clouds have parted in Vienna as he furiously charges after Novak Djokovic’s No. 1 ranking.

The three-time major winner and current Wimbledon champion is not riding an epic streak, but he’s been consistent, opportunistic and optimistic. He can finally run down this dream if he takes care of business in Western Europe.

“When you talk about getting to No. 1, it’s not about individual tournaments, but a 12-month period,” Murray said, per ATP World Tour. “I want to be consistent and get to the latter stages of as many tournaments as possible. I’ve done that over the past few months and obviously I will try to do that over the next few tournaments.”

For a task that even the legendary hero Hercules would have shunned some five months ago, Murray has wiped away a points deficit that was over 8,000 points for a chance to get it down to 415 points this weekend.

He got here by winning titles at London’s Queen’s Club, Wimbledon, Beijing, Shanghai and, for good measure, the Olympics gold medal in singles.

Even though he has not been unbeatable, losing the Cincinnati final and falling in the U.S. Open quarterfinals, Murray continues to do what he has done for the last decade: Just keep plugging away and hoping that his Big Three rivals (Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic) eventually wear down and give him his opportunity at No. 1.

The tennis gods have complied, and they have set him up to control his own destiny. It will either be a legacy-rewarding triumph or a cruel tease that ranks alongside King Tantalus’ eternal punishment.

SHANGHAI, CHINA - OCTOBER 16: Andy Murray of Great Britain enters the court against Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain during the Men's singles final match on day 8 of Shanghai Rolex Masters at Qi Zhong Tennis Centre on October 16, 2016 in Shanghai, China. (P
Zhong Zhi/Getty Images

         

Siege of Vienna

It’s important to remember that nothing has ever been easy for Murray. Although he has toiled for over a decade as a star, he’s never been at the level of the Big Three. They’ve astonished the tennis world with record-breaking streaks and gluts of major titles while Murray has been in their giant shadows, including 75 weeks at No. 2, as listed by ATP World Tour.

Suddenly, the Scot’s consistency has met opportunity. Nadal has declined significantly in the last two years, Federer had surgery and has not been fit to play tennis since Wimbledon, King Novak has fallen into a malaise and ATP anarchy has set up Murray to earn his crown if he wins titles in Vienna and Paris, or if it comes down to London.

Vienna’s title is worth 500 points, and Murray has a great opportunity to pack them into his tennis bag. There’s no Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka or Kei Nishikori to trip him. The next two highest seeds, Tomas Berdych and Dominic Thiem, have already been knocked out, and Murray only needs to defeat John Isner, David Ferrer or Viktor Troicki and possibly Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Then again, sometimes the easy-looking path is not so easy to tread. After all, Murray did need three sets to get by Martin Klizan and just as many sets and hours to dispatch the “Human Ball Machine” Gilles Simon. Maybe it’s a warning from the tennis gods that Murray must not let up for one point, lest his No. 1 window slam shut.

Winning Vienna would leave him 415 points behind Djokovic for points accumulated in 2016 in the ATP’s Race to London.

SHANGHAI, CHINA - OCTOBER 16: Andy Murray of Great Britain celebrates with his trophy during the award ceremony after winning the Men's singles final match against Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain on day 8 of Shanghai Rolex Masters at Qi Zhong Tennis Centre
Zhong Zhi/Getty Images

   

The Long Route to No. 1

If Murray sacks Vienna, he and Djokovic will duel from opposite ends of the Masters 1000 tournament in Paris. There, he could finally achieve his ambition with the title as long as he does not meet Djokovic—who needs to at least appear in the final for 600 points to keep a thin margin over a title-winning Murray.

Or, Murray could lose in the final and still get No. 1 as long as Djokovic loses before the semifinal.

Imagine Murray coming full circle at Paris, where five months ago it was Djokovic who had claimed the French Open title and that all-but-unconquerable 8,000-points lead.

Winning Paris? It would be the modern equivalent of Napoleon, who allegedly said “I saw the crown of France laying on the ground, so I picked it up with my sword.”

Yet Murray is also trying to ambush Djokovic with an unusually circuitous route:

  1. He could claim No. 1 without having to face Djokovic at all since Roland Garros.
  2. He would be the oldest player to finally achieve the No. 1 ranking, and if he became the year-end No. 1, he would be 29 years and 189 days old. 
  3. Only his coach Ivan Lendl was an older year-end No. 1 at 29 years and 333 days old in 1989. 
  4. Murray would be the first player since Lendl in 1989 to win the year-end No. 1 while somebody else won more major titles in that calendar year. Djokovic’s coach, Boris Becker, won two major titles to Lendl’s one, but it was Lendl who racked up more points throughout the year.

But while Murray is on a roll and many tennis fans have crowded on to his surging bandwagon, Djokovic is not exactly going to roll over.

The Serb has been No. 1 since July 2014, and he’s usually dominated Murray in their most important matches and occasions. He’s also well-rested and smarting from his loss to Roberto Bautista Agut. He lost his match and composure, and he no doubt wants a measure of redemption next week.  

He’s shown that he does not like losing, whatever the circumstances. If he’s right, he’s still the best player in the game and most likely to win majors in 2017.

All of that means Murray’s best time to get No. 1 is right now, in Vienna and Paris, before the sleeping giant wakes up. It might even be more difficult if it comes down to the World Tour Finals in London, but let’s see what happens before then.

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