In-depth: Murray's challenges in China the perfect practice for 2020 Grand Slam return
Andy Murray’s late-season swing in China is proving as challenging as he could ever have hoped for.
Victory over Juan Ignacio Londero in the Shanghai on Monday was Murray’s first Masters 1000 win in more than two years.
- Murray wins first Masters 1000 singles match for more than two years
- Murray: 'I can compete against top-30 rivals, the end is not near'
The former world number one faces 10th seed Fabio Fognini in the next round, and it is set to be another indicator as to how far Murray has come since returning from hip resurfacing surgery, in what will be his seventh match in just over a fortnight…
Andy MurrayGetty Images
Challenges in China
Murray is doing it the hard way in China. Four of his six matches since late September have gone to a decider, while he has also played six tie-breaks.
That has amounted to almost 14-and-a-half hours of tennis. Only Murray’s China Open defeat to Dominic Thiem last week was below two hours long, with his longest almost reaching three hours when beating fellow Brit Cameron Norrie in the previous round.
Andy Murray’s Asian swing
- Round of 16 - Alex de Minaur (Ranking: 31) – Lost 6-4 2-6 4-6 – 2hrs 42mins
- First round - Tennys Sandgren (69) – Won 6-3 6-7(6) 6-1 – 2hrs 41mins
- Quarter-Finals - Dominic Thiem (5) – Lost 2-6 6-7(3) – 1hr 54mins
- Round of 16 - Cameron Norrie (69) – Won 7-6(6) 6-7(4) 6-1 – 2hrs 52mins
- First round - Matteo Berrettini (13) – Won 7-6(2) 7-6(7) – 2hrs 1min
- First round - Juan Ignacio Londero (56) – Won 2-6 6-2 6-3 – 2hrs 17mins
Against a wide-range of opponents, Murray's fitness is being tested to the very limit, while he has also shown he is capable of challenging players in and around the top-10 ranking.
His win over Matteo Berrettini was undoubtedly a landmark win and an indication that Murray can himself return to at least the top 20, but the defeat to Thiem was a reality check in terms of realising the level he must reach if he is to fight for titles once more.
Fognini, therefore, represents arguably the perfect opponent to see where Murray stands in the tennis ladder.
'I'm competitive again'
"Until maybe a month ago, I didn't know I would be right at the top level", Murray said, ahead of Shanghai.
"Since I got in China, I feel like I have been competitive against all of the players I have competed against.
" I challenged a top-10 player, a top-20 player and a top-30 player, not winning all the matches but feeling like I've done really well.""
What is realistic in Melbourne?
“Everything has kind of been a pretty gradual progress for me. This week [in Beijing] was another step, I think, in the right direction.”
Beyond Shanghai, Murray will head to Antwerp for next week’s European Open, but with the season drawing to a close the focus is already switching towards his Grand Slam return at the Australian Open in January.
Murray will tailor his schedule carefully as he gears up for Melbourne, but training will play as integral a part as competition in the coming months.
Dominic Thiem and Andy MurrayGetty Images
Matches on back-to-back days have helped, but Murray will have to replicate the demands of five-set tennis in training to ensure he does not fall short come January.
The draw will of course have a big say in how far Murray can go in Melbourne, but you would imagine he is deeming a journey into the second week as a realistic goal.
That would require three wins over the course of five days. A huge ask, but the fact he is pushing opponents in the top 16 means he has every reason to believe a journey to the last-16 is possible.
Leading by example
Roger Federer leads the plaudits when it comes to the Scots’ return from the brink of retirement, which appeared to be the case at the last Australian Open 10 months ago.
“I think it’s super exciting for the Tour and for us players because he's very much a guy we like and respect a lot. He doesn't have enemies,” said Federer.
“We need guys like him who also lead by example with hard work and toughness and fairness.
" I love seeing Andy back. I also feel like he’s playing better and better, which is going to be great."
Murray may well begin to pick up enemies should he pick up scalps on next year’s Tour, but where this comeback ends remains a great unknown.
A rise back up the rankings seems likely, but the prospect of another Grand Slam title perhaps too optimistic.
Nevertheless, the sight of a pain-free Murray is already more than most could have expected - everything from here should be seen as a bonus.