Exhausted Murray ends dazzling year in defeat to Hrbaty

It has been a memorable year for Andy Murray but he will not recall the way it finished with any great pleasure. Weakened by a throat infection which had forced him to pull out of his penultimate tournament in Basle, Murray's Paris Masters campaign ended in the third round here last night when he was beaten 7-6, 6-0 by Dominik Hrbaty.

The 28-year-old Slovak is not the world No 27 for nothing and as one of the fittest players on the tour he is not the sort of opponent you want to face at the end of a long and demanding season. If Murray had been at full strength you would have fancied his chances, but after a course of antibiotics he has looked pale and drawn this week.

Nevertheless, disappointment in his final tournament of the year will not detract from what has been a hugely successful season. Having started 2006 as the world No 65, the 19-year-old Scot has climbed into the top 20 and shown that he is capable of living with the very best.

Murray is the only player this year other than Rafael Nadal to beat Roger Federer, the world No 1, and can also look back on his first tournament victory, at San Jose in February, runs to the last 16 at Wimbledon and the US Open, and several other notable scalps, including those of Andy Roddick (twice), Ivan Ljubicic and Lleyton Hewitt.

Last night's match had been scheduled for court one, a small arena hidden away deep in Bercy's huge Palais Omnisports where Murray had beaten Juan Ignacio Chela the night before, but the two men suddenly became the evening's main attraction on centre court when Richard Gasquet, the French No 1, pulled out of his match with Marat Safin because of a thigh injury.

It completed a day of disappointment for the home nation, which had filled 12 of the 48 places in the main draw but was left with none in the quarter-finals after Gasquet's withdrawal. The 12,000-capacity arena was less than a quarter full and the match was played in near silence for long periods, although one spectator, noticing the colour of the shirts worn by both men, briefly raised spirits with a cry of "Allez les Bleus!" Hrbaty, dragging Murray from side to side, had the British No 1 gasping for breath ­ a repeat of the problem he had suffered against Chela ­ as he was broken twice in the first three games.

The first set featured eight breaks in 12 games. Hrbaty had three points for a 5-2 lead, but Murray fought back to lead 5-4 and also took a 5-3 lead in the tie-break. But the telling moment came at 6-6 when a marathon point ended with an exhausted Murray putting a backhand in the net.

Hrbaty took the set when Murray netted another backhand on the next point. The first set had taken more than an hour but the Slovak raced away with the second in just 18 minutes.

Murray returns to competition in eight weeks' time in Doha, although he will probably spend half of the intervening period working with his coach, Brad Gilbert.

Was he now looking forward to a break? "I can't wait," he said. "It's been a really tough year mentally for me. It's been a very successful year. I think I've earned a break. I played a lot of tennis. I've done a lot of travelling. I've flown around the world to fit Davis Cup into my schedule.

"I played a lot at the start of the year. I tried to pace myself a bit better towards the end. I feel like it's time for a break, recharge my batteries, get ready for next year. I wouldn't mind taking a holiday somewhere, relaxing, getting in the sun, just having a bit of time to myself. " He has earned it.

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