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It's time for Murray to fill his glass and conquer the world

Simon BarnesJanuary 16, 2015
Andy Murray is seeded sixth for the upcoming Australian Open © Getty Images
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There comes a time when the sporting judgements you make reveal not your knowledge of sport but what kind of person you are. To put that another way: are you an Andy Murray half-full kind of person? Or the kind of person who thinks that Andy Murray is half-empty?

The evidence for both sides is equally compelling. When you come to weigh it up, it's about hunch and feeling and guess-work; whether you're the kind of person who requires protection from disappointment or whether you're willing to take the possibilities of disappointment on board.

Last year was horribly disappointing for Murray, of course, but the 12 months before that - from July 2012 to July 2013 - had glories that few tennis players get to experience. Now, with a new year and the Australian Open, the first grand-slam tournament of 2015, starting on Monday, it's time for Murray to go in for yet another personal re-launch; yet another new start. He's in the same half of the draw as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, but won't meet the world No.1, Novak Djokovic, unless he makes the final. Is that a good or a bad draw? Your call, I think.

Murray had an operation on his spine ... It's not something you're going to laugh off and instantly get back to your best

Most of us have had back pain at some stage, so we know a little of what Murray went through last year. A back-spasm feels like an assault on your entire personality: as if your own body-core has turned against you. Murray went through the pain, then opted for the operation. These days sporting surgeons are so slick and well-practiced that we don't think much about the operations they perform. What was once a career-ending injury (like a ruptured cruciate) is now a passing inconvenience.

But Murray had an operation on his spine, the place where all the main cables run, the heart of all movement in us vertebrates. It's enough to fill anyone with concern. It's not something you're going to laugh off and instantly get back to your best.

And Murray didn't. He had a year not of disaster but, perhaps more troublingly, of consistent mediocrity: in grand slams he went out at the quarter-final stage three times and the semi-final stage once. That last exit was a slightly fluky performance in Paris that led to a straight sets defeat to Nadal.

That's when Murray took on one of the most interesting people in the sport as his new coach. It was an audacious choice. I was there in Paris when Amelie Mauresmo announced herself and did her first presser as Murray's coach, and I thought, well, she's great. Wish I could take her out to a pavement café and buy her a glass of wine. And he's pretty great as well, so perhaps they'll make each other even greater.

Amelie Mauresmo was an audacious choice as coach © Getty Images
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All the same, come late autumn, I was preparing to write Murray off. With gratitude rather than contempt after Murray did as wonderful a thing as I've ever seen in sport, breaking a run of defeats that lasted 77 years. You don't have to be British to revel in the immensity of that achievement: turning those 77 years in which no British male had won the Wimbledon singles title into success and national rejoicing.

It completed a run in which Murray won the gold medal at the London Olympics and then the US Open in 2012. For my money he has achieved greatness in sport even if he never wins another tennis match in his life.

But Murray has never seen it like that. And after all the troubles of 2014, he still isn't ready to accept the idea that he is a busted flush - even though by autumn his world ranking was in double-figures and it looked as if he would fail to make the ATP Tour Finals, the last event of the calendar year, the gathering of the elite.

That's when Murray went on a mad campaign to set things right. He went charging round the world playing tennis tournaments with a demented intensity. He played 23 matches in 37 days, knocking over plenty of opponents on the way, getting his ranking back up to six and qualifying for the London finals.

By then he was looking like Murray at his best. If you had a mind to, you could interpret the disappointments of 2014 as a blip, or series of blips; this was Murray Unbound, a player who at last emerged triumphant from the stresses and traumas of surgery.

But, as always, there was a counter-argument. In Murray's last match in that end-of-term tournament he was demolished by Federer. So much so that Federer seemed to ease off and give Murray a game right at the end, to let him off the ultimate humiliation of the double-bagel.

I wondered if the wonders of Wimbledon had slaked all his ambitions: why carry on climbing when you've stood on the peak of Everest?

Since then Murray has been hard at work training and hard at work reinventing himself. He is deeply content in his working relationship with Mauresmo, but has made crucial changes to other parts of his entourage. He has got rid of his long-time friend and hitting partner, Dani Vallverdu, and his fitness coach, Jez Green.

He won the tournament in Dubai earlier this month and played some good tennis during the Hopman Cup, some of it in partnership with Heather Watson. He is seeded sixth for the Aussie Open. He's in decent shape but, as we all know, looking good in preparation is not the same thing as performing at the sharp end of a grand slam.

Whichever way you choose to look at Murray, there's a counter-argument. You can say that he's coming back stronger than before, citing that late-season charge and a good close-season. Or you can say he's all washed up, citing that disappointing run in the slams of 2014.

Murray owes us nothing. He can retire happy should he wish to. There were times last year when I wondered if the wonders of Wimbledon had slaked all his ambitions: why carry on climbing when you've stood on the peak of Everest?

But Murray is carrying on. His best may still be within reach, and very few tennis players could live with that. As the current incomparably rich batch of male tennis players reach their end-game, and before the new crop of young ones are ready to take their places, it's time for Murray to strike once again. If he really, really wants to.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

Writer Bio

Simon Barnes was Chief Sports Writer at The Times and UK Sports Columnist of the Year in 2001 and 2007. He writes about a wide variety of sports for ESPN.co.uk, as well as ESPNFC.com and ESPNcricinfo. He has written more than 20 books including The Meaning of Sport and three novels. On Twitter he is @simonbarneswild

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