Andy Murray gave a glimpse into his mind when he was asked after his impressive victory over Denis Shapovalov at the Madrid Open whether the prospect of facing Novak Djokovic in the next round had provided any motivation for him. Rather than go with the stock answer – “I was just out there taking it point by point, not thinking too far ahead” – Murray was honest.
“I thought about it a little bit at the beginning of the third set. I didn’t know if I was going to get the opportunity to play matches like that again and in theory I shouldn’t have a chance.
“But I have put myself in a great position and have worked extremely hard over the last five or six weeks to get myself here and it’s a fantastic opportunity to play against him again on a huge court in a big tournament.”
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Murray has already beaten former Grand Slam champion Dominic Thiem and world No. 16 Shapovalov in Madrid. If he was looking for any vindication over his U-turn to play on clay rather than prepare for the grass season he surely has it already. But Murray wants more.
He has spoken so often over the last 12 months about wanting to test himself against the “best in the world” that it’s hard not to think that is the benchmark he has set himself. It may seem unrealistic to some and despite how far off he appears right now - at No. 78 in the world rankings - he will be relishing the chance to face Djokovic again.
Perhaps there’s a bit of nostalgia in it. It will be the first time Murray has played any of the ‘Big Three’ since his last meeting with Djokovic in the Qatar Open final in 2017. He last faced Roger Federer in 2015 and Rafael Nadal in 2016.
Djokovic v Murray – last five matches
- Qatar Open 2017 – Djokovic won 6-3 5-7 6-4
- ATP Finals 2016 – Murray won 6-3 6-4
- French Open 2016 – Djokovic won 3-6 6-1 6-2 6-4
- Italian Open 2016 – Murray won 6-3 6-3
- Madrid Open – Djokovic won 6-2 3-6 6-3
In those ultra-competitive times Murray was very much a part of the ‘Big Four’, challenging for the biggest titles on tour and battling to be No.1 in the world. He reached the peak at the end of 2016 after an incredible run of five successive tournament wins, ending with victory at the ATP Finals, and his loss to Djokovic in Qatar was the end of a 28-match unbeaten streak. Who would have thought then that Murray would have just seven months left at the top of the game?
This will be the 37th career meeting between Djokovic and Murray. The overall head-to-head record favours Djokovic (25-11) as does the clay head-to-head record (5-1). Djokovic will start as favourite, especially after his “best performance of the year” last time out against Gael Monfils, and Murray has humorously downplayed his chances – “He’s No. 1, I’ve got a metal hip”. But he will be desperate to at least push his childhood friend close, and despite his apparent pessimism, he has got a chance.
Murray’s first-set performance against Shapovalov was his best in sometime - albeit aided by a hatful of unforced errors from the Canadian - and he seems to be playing a bit more aggressively this week. He also looks physically fresh, perhaps a benefit of a few weeks away from the tour, and is moving well on the clay.
Former world No. 1 Andy Roddick thinks Murray, who has been on a training block in Florida with coach Ivan Lendl over the last month, has more “pop” in his shot and looks “a little bit different”.
“When he first started going back after the hip procedure it was all grit and guile, now there’s some pop on the shots,” Roddick told Tennis Channel.
“He is able to strategise and get play to his strengths a bit. There are more options which brings his IQ even more to the forefront than it was.
“When you watched him earlier on it felt like he was playing with a pair of twos all the time and going all in and eventually he is going to get beat, but this Andy Murray looks a little bit different.
“He’s not falling over on the serve anymore, he’s getting some height on it, standing up. The way he is moving on the clay and the way he is punching through, really impressive stuff.”
Murray ousts Shapovalov in Madrid Open second round
It was only nine months ago that Murray was downbeat and questioning “if all the hard work is worth it” after winning only eight games against Shapovalov at Wimbledon. But on reflection that was Murray being hard on himself. He was playing only his fifth tournament of the year - whereas Madrid is his ninth of the 2022 season – and did not look as ready to compete in high-level matches as he does now. His movement in particular stood out in the win over Shapovalov.
"I trained very hard the past four or five weeks and got my game in good shape,” he said.
“My movement has been so much better than where it was at the beginning of the year and it makes a huge difference to my whole game. It allows me to make different decisions on the court. My movement won me that match tonight. I defended so many points. He has so much power and I managed to defend lots of points and that won the match for me, so I was really happy with that."
Djokovic will provide a different test to Shapovalov. There probably won’t be as many freebies and Djokovic should be more clinical and patient than the Canadian. It will be the first time Murray and Djokovic have played together in four years, but they have practised on several occasions during that time. Djokovic is aware of the test Murray poses.
“He's moving well, playing better and better. It's really fantastic to see, because he's an important player for our game. He's made his mark in the history of our sport by winning multiple Slams and gold medals and No. 1 of the world. He's one of the most important names that we have.”
Murray will be keen to show that he remains much more than just a name when he takes to the court on Thursday.
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