Steve Flink: Murray Secures No. 1 Ranking with more Mastery

Sitting in my home on Sunday morning watching the final round broadcast of the BNP Paribas Masters final from Paris between Andy Murray and John Isner, I marveled at the masterful range of skills exhibited by the British warrior who is now standing at the very top of the tennis mountain. When Murray reached the title round appointment after a default from an injured Milos Raonic in the penultimate round, he already knew that he had garnered the highly coveted No. 1 spot in the Emirates Rankings. Murray recognized that he is only the 26th man to earn that distinction since the official world rankings were first released back in 1973. He appreciated that he was the oldest to achieve the honor of being a first time No. 1 on the computer since John Newcombe in 1974. Moreover Murray was well aware that his journey to preeminence was the product of supreme discipline, immense dedication to his craft, and, as always is the case for those who excel in this profession, a modicum of luck.

But it is never easy to walk out on the court the day after accomplishing something substantial and find the spark to bring out your best material. Murray had spent 76 weeks at No. 2 in the world. He has secured three major singles titles along with two Olympic gold medals across his sterling career, but touched this new milestone far sooner than he had anticipated. The 29-year-old figured his chance would come early next year, when Novak Djokovic has so many prestige prizes to protect.

And yet, Murray has been a virtually unstoppable force these last couple of months. He has not suffered a tournament loss since bowing against Kei Nishikori in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. He has been spiraling along confidently, applying himself diligently, and competing with an equanimity he has seldom if ever exhibited before. Murray thus approached his indoor meeting with Isner at Paris wanting to prove that there would be no complacency despite the fact that he had just realized a lifelong ambition. Rather, he was utterly determined to raise his career record over the American to 8-0, and to collect a 43rd career ATP World Tour career title.

That turned out to be a demanding task. Although Murray held at 15 to open the contest, Isner countered with three aces and conceded only one point on his way to 1-1. Both men were leaning in, playing high quality tennis, executing their game plans convincingly. Murray advanced to 2-1 without the loss of a point but then Isner made it to 2-2 by holding at 15, serving-and-volleying three times in that game. Not until the fifth game was either player under stress on serve. Murray trailed 15-30 but sent a first delivery down the T to set up a forehand winner up the line. He advanced to 40-30, erred surprisingly off the forehand, but held on from there by forcing an error from his adversary and then unleashing a forehand winner behind Isner.

The 31-year-old American now served at 2-3, and an ace out wide took him to 30-0. But he was rushed into a backhand slice error by a fast paced Murray return before bungling a backhand volley wide off a forehand pass from Murray. Isner gambled slightly at 30-30, rocketing a second serve down the T, double faulting. Down break point, Isner drove a two-hander long. Murray had rallied from 15-30 on his serve and 30-0 down on Isner's, creating a 4-2 lead in the process. He could just as easily have been down 4-2, but succeeding on the big points is almost automatic when a great player is riding on a wave of soaring self conviction.

Nonetheless, the British competitor had to dig himself out of more danger in the following game. Serving at 2-4, he double faulted into the net for 0-15. Isner lost the next point but followed with a pair of searing inside out winners off the forehand. In seven previous clashes against Murray encompassing 19 sets, Isner had converted only one of 34 break points. Now he had two more opportunities with Murray serving at 4-2, 15-40. Isner released a monstrous forehand return that the quick-reacting Murray somehow fended off. Isner came forward and deliberately played a low, short forehand volley down the line. Murray raced forward with his usual swiftness, and somehow lofted a brilliant sliced lob off the backhand over an opponent who stands 6'10" tall.

Isner chased that ball down, but Murray had taken over the net, and he made a simple volley into the open court with Isner stranded in his backhand corner. At 30-40, Murray approached on the American's backhand, and Isner chipped the passing shot into the net. Murray held for 5-2 after another deuce. After Isner held at love with an ace down the T, Murray closed out the set on his terms. From 30-30, he aced Isner down the T. At 40-30, he released an admirably accurate first serve out wide, eliciting a backhand return error from the big man. Set to Murray, 6-3.

Isner, however, was largely undismayed. He opened the second set with a strong service game, granting Murray only a single point, winning his four points with an ace, two successful serve-volley combinations and a forehand winner off a short return. Murray answered with a love hold for 1-1. Both players were unstoppable on serve across the next five games; Isner swept 12 of 15 points on his delivery while Murray won eight of nine. But then Isner put himself in a commanding position.

Serving at 3-4, Murray trailed 0-40. Isner should have broken him right then and there. Murray's short half volley sat up, allowing Isner to come forward for an inviting two-handed backhand crosscourt pass into a wide open space. But somehow the American sent that shot long, much to his chagrin. Murray put away an overhead for 30-40, and aced Isner down the T with a second serve for deuce. Isner garnered a fourth break point but was provoked into a running forehand down the line error by a precise and purposeful Murray, who held on gamely for 4-4.

The next four games were won decisively by the server. Isner kept pressing forward behind his delivery with remarkable efficiency. He handled a stream of terrific returns from Murray with excellent feel and depth on the volley, particularly off the forehand side. Isner's low forehand down the line volley—produced with sidespin—has never been better. Murray, meanwhile, backed up his serve magnificently. And so they moved on fittingly to a tie-break. Isner was outstanding in that sequence. He did not miss a first serve, returned and concentrated well, and kept the pressure on Murray. The British competitor double faulted to give Isner a 4-2 lead. Murray took the next point but Isner travelled to 6-3 with a nifty serve-volley and then an ace down the T. Murray saved one set point on serve but Isner came through on the second with a sparkling inside out forehand winner. Set to a deserving Isner, 7-4 in the tie-break.

Isner reached 15-30 on Murray's serve in the crucial opening game of the third set, but missed an aggressive forehand return long. Murray realized how important that game was, holding at 30 for 1-0. Isner wandered into dangerous territory in the second game but saved a break point with a forehand winner off a short return. He held on for 1-1 but was back in another difficult predicament in the fourth game. He aced his way out of another break point, and held on tenaciously for 2-2.

Murray, though, was unshakable. He held at 15 for 3-2, as did Isner for 3-3. A love hold—including two aces—lifted Murray to 4-3 but Isner served two aces to arrive at 4-4. In the ninth game, Murray was pushed to deuce but his response reflected his current strength of mind. No panic. No nonsense. No gifts. He swung a first serve wide and Isner could not handle the return. Soon he was up 5-4. Now Isner was serving to stay in the match, hoping to somehow fight his way into a tie-break.

He did not get there. Isner punched a backhand volley long and double faulted into the net for 0-30. A lob volley that set up a forehand drop volley enabled Isner back to 15-30; an ace down the T—his 18th and last of the match—brought the American to 30-30. Murray made a trademark low backhand crosscourt passing shot that was unmanageable for Isner, and so it was match point for the new world No. 1. Murray's return was short but landed in an awkward spot for Isner. who approached down the line. Once more, Murray's backhand pass was too good. Isner had battled ferociously, but an unbending Murray refused to back off, winning 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-4.

It was his fourth tournament triumph in a row and his eighth title run of 2016. The most tournaments he had won in any previous campaign was six back in 2009. In turn, Murray captured the Masters 1000 crown for the first time in Paris, where he was the runner-up to Djokovic a year ago. Altogether, it was Murray's 14th Masters 1000 championship run.

Yet he could have been knocked out early in the week. Murray had a first round bye before colliding with the ever dangerous left-hander from Spain, Fernando Verdasco. After splitting sets, Murray found himself locked at 5-5 in the final set and down 15-40. Verdasco carelessly directed a backhand crosscourt that landed wide. Murray swept eight points in a row to record a 6-3, 6-7 (5), 7-5 triumph. He took his next match comfortably over Lucas Pouille and then met old rival Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals.

Berdych has been a perennial qualifier for the elite, eight player, season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Championships. From 2010-2015, he finished six years in a row alternating between No. 6 and No. 7 in the world. But 2016 has been a lackluster season for one of the game's purest ball strikers and most enigmatic players. He desperately needed a win over Murray to keep his chances alive for London, although Raonic might have to withdraw from the field, which would allow Berdych to slip in the back door.

In any case, he gave himself a great chance against Murray in Paris. Both men performed tremendously to bring about an opening set tie-break. Berdych was firing away freely off the forehand in that sequence, building a 6-1 lead in that critical sequence with a barrage of flat shots off that side. But he squandered no less than seven set points and lost the tie-break 11-9. He broke back for 5-5 in the second set but once again his brittle temperament cost him dearly. A resolute Murray prevailed 7-6 (9), 7-5. It did him no harm to get the semifinal default from Raonic, and then he overcame a top of the line Isner.

As for Djokovic, his second half of the season woes continued. After triumphing at Roland Garros for his fourth major in a row, he lost in the third round of Wimbledon, came back to win the Masters 1000 event in Toronto, lost a heartbreaking opening round contest in two tie-breaks to Juan Martin Del Potro at the Olympic Games, and then was beaten in the final of the U.S. Open by Stan Wawrinka. He returned in Shanghai and lost for the first time to Roberto Bautista Agut in the semifinals.

In Paris, Djokovic stopped Gilles Muller in straight sets and then came from behind to win in three sets over Grigor Dimitrov, playing reasonably well but tentatively in that match. He faced Marin Cilic in the quarterfinals. Cilic had just won the Swiss Indoors the week before, but he walked on court with a 0-14 record against the Serbian. He came away with a win over a man who is unmistakably a prisoner of his own confusions at the moment. That is to say: Djokovic has lost most of his swagger, and in too many encounters he is almost always found wanting at propitious moments.

Against Cilic, Djokovic squandered a 40-15 lead in the second game, lost his serve to trail 2-0 but broke right back. Serving at 4-5, Djokovic connected with only two of eight first serves and was constantly on the defensive. Cilic sealed the set 6-4. In the second set, Djokovic played an inspired game to break at love for 5-4 but, serving for the set, the Serbian collapsed. Up 15-0, he made a bad mistake off the forehand, then an error off the backhand, followed by two double faults. Rather than moving into a third set, Djokovic stood at 5-5. Cilic held for 6-5, and reached 15-40 in the twelfth game, with two match points at his disposal.

Djokovic suddenly and strikingly looked like the towering player who dominated the game across 2014 through the first half of 2015. He serve-volleyed behind a second delivery and caught Cilic off guard, punching a backhand first volley crosscourt that set up a backhand volley winner down the line. He saved the second match point with a scintillating forehand winner. On he went to a tie-break, taking the first point to gain an immediate mini-break. But Cilic—clearly boosted by his opponent's ineptitude—surged to 4-1 and never looked back, taking the tie-break 7-2, winning the match 6-4, 7-6 (2). Cilic had a considerable letdown in the semifinals and Isner served him right off the court in straight sets.

The story of Murray's rise to No. 1 is two-pronged. A big part of it is the British player's sustained excellence from May into November, but the other portion is Djokovic's sharp decline after a splendid run from January through the French Open. Last week in Paris, neither of his primary coaches—Boris Becker and Marian Vajda—were present. No one knows at this stage what their status is for next year and beyond, but Djokovic had another man at court-side on his team helping him in Paris. Pepe Imaz, described aptly by Mike Dickson of the Daily Mail as a "spiritual guru", might prove us all wrong, but the view here is that if Djokovic does not want to work any longer with Becker or Vajda, he ought to turn elsewhere toward an established coach like Darren Cahill, Paul Annacone or Brad Gilbert to help him repair his wounded psyche and reestablish his game.

My hunch is that Djokovic will not win the Barclays ATP World Championships. Murray is the heavy favorite now. The wind is at his back. Not only has he captured one more tournament than Djokovic this year, but Murray's match record is 73-9 (.890) while Djokovic is 61-8 (.883). And if Murray is victorious in London, if in his ninth appearance at the season-ending championships he finally succeeds, if Murray closed his phenomenal season with a triumphant flourish, that would guarantee the British competitor the No. 1 year-end ranking. Such an achievement would be more significant than simply residing at the top right now. Should Andy Murray realize that extraordinary feat, no one could dispute with any credibility that he would not be worthy of it.

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