It was not even a juvenile challenge of “come and have a go if you think you are hard enough”. However, Andy Murray’s quietly spoken response yesterday to a routine piece of baiting by Roger Federer was fascinating.
“Hopefully, I will get a chance to play against him this week and we can let our tennis do the talking,” said the 24-year-old Scot who has overtaken the Swiss player in the world rankings. This was said with anticipation rather than belligerence in the wake of a Federer dismissal of Murray’s triumphs in Asia.
However, it speaks to generally accepted theory that somehow Murray gets under the skin of the 30-year-old world No 4. Asked if this could be the case, Murray replied simply: “Maybe.”
He immediately qualified this by pointing out that he was unaware of what Federer has been saying in the build-up to the Barclays ATP World Tour finals at the O2 Arena in London.
Briefly, the winner of 16 Grand Slams was asked to comment on Murray’s achievement of winning three consecutive titles – in Bangkok, Tokyo and Shanghai – on the Asian swing. Federer managed to restrain his admiration. “I’m not taking anything away from Asia, but was Asia the strongest this year?” he asked. “I’m not sure. Novak wasn’t there, I wasn’t there and Rafa lost early,” he said.
Murray, claiming no knowledge of the Federer comments, yesterday asserted of his triple triumph: “It is difficult to do and not many players have done it. I found it tough. I do not know what has been said, but you have to look at how many guys have been able to do it, especially with the depth of tennis these days. It is not as if you can just turn up and win a Masters series. In the week beforehand in Tokyo, I played Rafa Nadal, I played David Ferrer in the semis, so five in the world after two in the world, and David Nalbandian and Marcos Baghdatis. Good players, some of them great players. It is not an easy thing to do.”
He then seemed to make a point when asked again how strong he believes the Asian tournaments were. “It depends how you look at it. Look at Paris. Rafa wasn’t there, Novak Djokovic was injured and I was injured.”
And who won in Paris? Answers on a postcard, please to: Roger Federer Wins Paris Masters Competition at the usual address. All this can, of course, be dismissed as pre-tournament bluster, but it speaks to a truth: Federer finds Murray somehow irritating and the Scot loves it.
Murray’s 8-6 winning record against Federer may have something to do with it, although it must be pointed out that the Swiss player has won the two Grand Slam finals they have contested without losing a set.
Nevertheless, Federer, who was last night named the fans’ favourite at the ATP World Tour Awards where he also picked up the Stefen Edberg Sportsmanship award, has often seemed ungracious to the Scot. This week he referred to him in a BBC interview as “Murray”. This, again, is hardly likely to bring him a summons for threatening behaviour, but Federer would never refer to “Nadal” or “Djokovic” and indeed did not in the same interview.
Federer and Murray can only meet in the semi-finals or finals at the O2, but the Scot’s ambitions must stretch further than gaining some satisfaction over his Swiss rival or even winning this tournament. It is all about Grand Slams for the Scot and his view of Federer remains unclouded enough for him to gaze at the former world No 1’s 16 Grand Slams with respect and, indeed, a powerful craving.
Murray can find inspiration in the deeds of Federer, but he may be more motivated by the sudden explosion of success from Djokovic. The Serb, a week younger than Murray, won three Grand Slams in a glorious 2011. “I feel like it is pretty even in a lot of respects,” Murray said of how his game matches up with the world No 1 who holds a 6-4 record against him.
“He was struggling a lot at times last year,” said Murray of his friend. “You know, not just losing matches, but struggling with his serve. He tried to make some changes and it hadn’t worked out well at all. People were saying: ‘Is Djokovic ever going to win another Grand Slam? Is he good enough to do it?’
“And it just goes to show that everyone is good enough to do it, it’s just whether you can play your best tennis at the right moments and gain that confidence that he’s had this year.”
Murray has to believe that he is one small step from the ultimate goal of winning a Slam. He can do no more in terms of improving general fitness. His technique, particularly on the forehand, can be tweaked but, at 24, he is not going to make a huge leap in terms of his overall game.
Djokovic insists, though, that his mate does not have to improve dramatically to become a regular Slam winner. The Serb explained his spectacular year in simple terms yesterday.
“The difference in my game was just my mental approach and maturity as a player on and off the court, as a person as well, just figuring out things – how to deal with the pressure, how to play the right shots at the right moments and using the necessary experience that I’ve had over the years playing against Roger and Rafa and Andy himself,” said Djokovic yesterday of a season that saw him win Wimbledon, where he bagged the Centre Court net as a souvenir, and the Australian and US Opens.
“I’ve maybe made that mental switch, I have maybe more self-belief on the court that I can win major events, that I can win the matches that I’ve been losing in past years. Andy has played a couple of Grand Slam finals already and he’s been in the top four of the world in the last couple of years, so I’m sure that he wants a Grand Slam title at this moment in time more than anybody,” he said.
“I’m sure he will make it because he has the quality to do so. He has won so many big events, he has won against all the best players in the world. He’s a complete player.”
There is no guarantee of major success for the Scot, but fear should not be an obstacle. Murray repeated yesterday his love of playing against the big players, insisting he was confident even when playing Federer for the first time in 2005 in Bangkok.
But surely someone must scare him?
“The only person I was really, really intimidated against was Marat Safin when I played him the first time when I was like 18 in Cincinnati. He was getting like really angry after a couple of games. He was so big, you know, so big.”
Murray, though, has grown since. The events of the next week in London may just give a clue to whether a major is within his reach.