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Baker backs Murray to play long game with his tennis career

JAMIE Baker's vantage point wasn't ideal when his close friend Andy Murray won Wimbledon last year.

Andy Murray still has the drive to play at the top in tennis, according to Jamie Baker
Andy Murray still has the drive to play at the top in tennis, according to Jamie Baker

Returning from his brother's wedding in Italy, the Scot was huddled over a laptop at an airport in Tuscany, those epoch-defining moments from Centre Court relayed via a facetime connection of an iPad recording of live TV. But he does have some insight into the struggles of the man who will drop to No 10 in the world when the new rankings emerge tomorrow.

A week before Murray's triumph over Novak Djokovic, Baker announced he had made the decision to give up professional tennis at the age of just 26. Does he believe Murray might follow and also make an early exit from the game?

From the "five f****** minutes" mystery of what apparently upset Murray before his quarter-final against Grigor Dimitrov to the speculation about unrest among his coaching team, it is possible to discern a world weariness creeping into Murray's demeanour since he famously lifted this title 12 months ago.

Baker feels sure it is a temporary setback. "What happened with Andy here last year, every time I walk in I can't believe that he went through it," said Baker. "Put yourself in his shoes, where you have devoted your whole life into trying to achieve something and he has done it at 26. Where do you go from there? You are probably aware that everything from then on will not eclipse that. We all shared a bit of it, but only he can know.

"He has a lot of years left doing what he is doing. He is obviously going through a little bit of a transition phase because of the scale of what he has achieved, but he loves competing. Going on court, being stronger than people, he loves all that. I am glad I was out in Paris [as a TV pundit for the French Open] for the second week. I saw some of the best matches Andy has played on clay. For the first four matches here a lot of people were saying he was playing better than last year.

"The quarter-final against Dimitrov was a surprise - the difference was night and day, Andy will know that himself. Why that was I am not sure. But in the big picture, I do think he is getting back to a point where he can say 'right, what is next?'."

Baker took fully a year to arrive at his decision to retire from the courts. It was partially born of the realisation that the time and effort he was investing in the sport wasn't worth the return. While he was becoming demoralised, a new wave of eager kids were coming through. "I felt like I was playing myself from five, six years ago at the other side of the net," he said.

Tim Henman is another friend and confidant who believes Murray will not succumb to the same sort of malaise. He is certain Murray's tennis career still has a long way to run and his own example bears this out. At the age of 30, and troubled by ongoing back problems, Henman found a new, more specialised, training regime under Paul Annacone which brought the Englishman US Open and French Open semi-finals. Murray has always been defined by his ability to put his body through more pain than any other player on the Tour.

"He has so much more to achieve," said former British No 1 Henman, now a commentator for the BBC. "His back will be an issue, but I don't see any reason why he can't go on till he is in his mid-30s like Roger Federer. If he can train at 100% for 45 minutes then great, that is what it has to be, rather than 100% for two hours. Once that level drops then his time is better served doing something else, whether it is Pilates, stretching or something else.

"That is how I became more clear in my game style and maintained my enthusiasm. That is an area for Andy to look at, because he needs to make sure that he is really enjoying it and not becoming stale.

"He is playing the biggest and best tournaments in the world and making a pretty good living out of it. It is a privilege. Andy needs to get that balance right so that when he is out on the practice court he is really fresh and has loads of enthusiasm. That can be a challenge even for the best athletes in the world."

As for Baker, civilian life appears to be agreeing with him. He bounds across the players' lawn at Wimbledon offering a smile and a handshake. The 12 months since that final, agonising defeat to Igor Kunitsyn of Russia at SW19 have seen the Glaswegian give up the unglamorous graft of travelling the world and picking up paltry pay cheques in far-flung outposts for a high-powered job in the city of London, instead dispensing the cheques with banking group Santander.

While he had clearly reached breaking point with the sport he loves, it didn't take him long to realise that the last thing he actually wanted was a clean break.His day off on Friday was spent watching the Wimbledon men's semi-finals with his girlfriend Laura, and most of his annual leave tends to go the same way.

As he takes his first steps into the world of TV punditry, he used a good chunk of it to take up a role as a courtside reporter for Eurosport at the French Open. Last Saturday he co-hosted the LTA ball with Anne Keothavong at the Hurlingham Club.

"I haven't learned how to say no to stuff yet," Baker said. "I am actually busier now than I was before. I don't think my girlfriend is too happy."

But however much the Scot loves his new life, the thrill of live broadcasting or making a big deal in the banking world, the experience of walking out on court at Wimbledon with the world watching will always trump everything else.

"At the age of 27, I know I will never have that adrenaline, that buzz again," Baker said. "It was such a privilege to be able to do that. Nothing else comes close."

That is something Andy Murray will want to bear in mind if he feels tempted to make any rash decisions.

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