Flashback: Remembering Andy Murray´s Last Great ITF Comeback

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The oft-underapreciated Scot culminates sublime career by achieving #1 ranking

Tennis officially has a new chief in Andy Murray, the 26th male player to lead the Emirates ATP Rankings in singles since they became official in 1973.

“I feel like getting to number one it wasn’t about this week. Or about last week…It’s been many years of work to get here,” Murray said at a press conference regarding his long, extensive journey on the way to the summit.

The first time I saw Murray play was on Sunday, December 12th, 2004. The 17-year-old Brit was set to face the big-hitting Andis Juska, two years his senior, in the final of a $10,000 Futures in Ourense (Spain), my hometown. The tournament was held at Complexo Bamio, a humongous indoor facility that has since been shut down by the city council for not complying with a plethora of municipal rules.

Altough Murray´s name showed up at number 532 in the ATP ladder that week, I knew he was legit. As your typical 12-year-old tennis junkie, I was aware the Dunblane native had won the 2004 US Open junior title. Yes, when Viktor Troicki spoiled Gael Monfils’ historic attempt at seizing the calendar-year Grand Slam.

Moreover, Murray had shown guts during the week, defeating both the event´s first seed, Adrian Cruciat, and the best Galician player ever, former ATP #126 Óscar Burrieza in straight sets.

The Scottish prodigy was practicing in Barcelona at the time, more specifically at Sanchez-Casal Tennis Academy. He traveled to Ourense with the legendary William ‘Pato’ Álvarez, who has also coached Emilio Sánchez Vicario, Sergio Casal, Joan Balcells, Tomás Carbonell, Juan Mónaco, and Grigor Dimitrov, among others.

There were roughly 15 to 20 spectators on the stands witnessing a typical Murray performance. The Latvian, a boom or bust prospect, went for broke on the ultra-fast courts and raced to a 6-1 lead.

Remember the reasons behind Amelie Mauresmo calling it quits as Murray´s coach earlier this year? If yes, you are correctly picturing Murray´s behavior twelve years ago. He was stringing together rant after rant, paying no attention whatsoever to Álvarez´s advice and itching to go home.

He refused to tank, though. As it eventually became the norm throughout his career, Murray´s focus bent, but did not break. His otherworldly competitive gene came to rescue just in time. He started putting in play a higher share of returns, awarding fewer free points to Juska. Even though the surface was so fast that sustaining long rallies was nothing short of utopic, the Scot also gave himself a larger margin of error from the baseline, encouraging his rival to keep hitting winners all match long. Eventually, the Latvian´s pinpoint accuracy began to falter. His confidence crumbled. Murray clawed his way back to win 1-6 6-3 7-5, bagging his fourth Futures title. An enraged Juska smashed three rackets prior to the trophy ceremony.

When I left the complex, I knew Murray was extremely likely to “make it” to the main tour. Not many 17-year-olds are capable of throwing tantrums and still overcoming a terrible first set against a streaking power hitter in a Futures final. He showed a glimpse of the steadiness and the high tennis IQ he became known for over the last decade.

Notwithstanding, I never anticipated that, merely seven months later, as a Wimbledon wild card, he would be defeating George Bastl and Radek Stepanek in straights, then taking the first two sets from 2002 finalist David Nalbandian.

He also blew away my expectations the following summer at Cincinnati. In Ohio, he inflicted peak Roger Federer his only non-Rafael Nadal loss in 2006. The 7-5 6-4 loss to Murray was the lone setback Federer suffered after the French Open.

Then came the period in which Murray established himself as part of the so-called Big Four, alongside Federer, Nadal, and his contemporary nemesis Novak Djokovic. Between 2008 and 2011, he won a pair of Masters 1000 per year. Besides, he was a consistent threat at non-clay Grand Slams.

The full breakthrough came in 2012 when, despite losing a heart-breaking four-set battle to Federer at the Wimbledon final, Murray quickly regrouped and won the London Olympics and his maiden Slam at the US Open.

In 2013 he finally captured the Wimbledon trophy. Thus, he snapped a 77-year streak of foreign victors at the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.

The following two seasons were rough for Murray, who spent the first half of 2014 decimated by a back injury. Aside from living in the shadow of an utterly dominant Djokovic, he was suddenly incapable of beating an aging Federer. Furthermore, Stan Wawrinka´s late-career Slam heroics prompted many critics to question whether the Big Four should be considered a Big Three instead. Still, he carried Great Britain to an improbable Davis Cup title in 2015, setting the tone for a successful 2016 campaign.

Murray shut down all possible speculation with his superb 2016. After a routine final appearance in Melbourne, the Brit had a lackluster American spring swing. He bounced back with a stellar clay season, culminating it with his first final at Roland Garros. Ever since June, Dunblane´s prodigal son was undoubtedly the best player on the tour. Titles at Queen´s, Wimbledon, the Rio Olympics, Beijing, Shanghai, Vienna, and Paris corroborate such an assertion.

Nobody in the history of the sport had had to deal with three comparable juggernauts. While Murray is on the losing end of all three head-to-head matchups, he has beaten three of the best players ever a whopping 28 times, collecting at least seven wins against each of them. It would be foolish to deny that Djokovic´s uncharacteristic second half swoon has helped. Yet, tennis owed this #1 ranking to Murray. Like on that cold Sunday morning in Ourense a dozen years ago, he kept persisting. He refused to give up on that dream.

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