Fleming comes to maturity in Murray mould
Scholarly Scot who grew up with Andy is becoming more than just an understudy
It is not often that Colin Fleming can outdo his boyhood friend Andy Murray, but you might argue that he did so last weekend. Both Scots lost their singles finals to higher-ranked opponents, but Fleming won his doubles title, whereas Murray had gone out in the quarter-finals.
Mind you, it is best not to go too much further in search of parallels. Murray was beaten by Rafael Nadal, the world No 1, in the Indian Wells Masters in California, while Fleming went down to Stéphane Robert, the world No 263, in the Aegon Pro-Series at the University of Bath. Murray's consolation was a runner-up's cheque worth more than £200,000; Fleming's reward was just £837, plus £292 for his doubles triumph.
Fleming is the first to stress the gap he has to bridge in order to join the Murrays and Nadals, but the 24-year-old's second attempt to do so – he returned to full-time tennis last summer after a two-year break to complete a university degree and find a job – has been encouraging.
He has had to play mostly on the Futures circuit, the game's third tier after the ATP and Challenger tours, where only limited ranking rewards are on offer. While Fleming earned 14 points as a beaten finalist in Bath, Murray left Indian Wells with 600. But consistency has taken Fleming to No 571 in the singles rankings and No 286 in doubles; by July, with a full year's points in the bag, his position should have improved markedly.
His doubles performances, mostly with another British university graduate in Ken Skupski, have been exceptional, and include a run of six successive titles. John Lloyd, Britain's Davis Cup captain, took note and Fleming was one of the few plus points to emerge from a 4-1 setback against Ukraine in Glasgow three weeks ago after he partnered Ross Hutchins in a narrow five-set defeat.
"Playing for Britain in front of 4,000 fans was an unbelievable experience," Fleming said. "Getting involved in things like the Davis Cup and ATP tournaments has always been one of my goals. It's given me more drive to get involved at that sort of level more regularly."
The success of Andy and Jamie Murray has also been an inspiration. Fleming grew up in Linlithgow, 15 miles from the Murrays in Dunblane. Junior tennis is a small world, and the boys knew each other from an early age, travelling to tournaments together – often in the care of Judy, the Murrays' mother – and playing for their clubs in the Central District League.
Fleming said: "I look at Andy and Jamie, guys who I've grown up with, and I think, 'They lived half an hour up the road from me. They had the belief to make it. Why can't I? If I believe in myself and give it a go, why can't I get up there?' I'm not saying I can be anything like as good a player as Andy Murray, but what he's achieved does encourage me to give it a go."
At 17, Andy Murray, having opted for a tennis education at the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Barcelona, won the US Open junior title. At the same age, Fleming, an outstanding school pupil, headed for Stirling University to study economics and finance.
After completing three years of his four-year course, Fleming took two years out to try his luck on the tennis circuit. Despite modest success, including playing doubles at Wimbledon with Jamie Murray, who was then his regular partner, Fleming decided at 21 to return to his studies. "I felt I'd got to the stage where I wasn't progressing," he said. "At that stage I had no intentions of ever playing full-time again."
A year later he left Stirling with a first-class honours degree and joined some high-flying recruits at Scottish Power. But the tennis bug was still biting and last summer, approaching his 24th birthday, he decided to have another go. "I was enjoying my job but I started to feel that I was still young, was capable of playing sport at a reasonably high level and wasn't ready to give up on that. I want to give it everything this time around. As long as I'm improving I'll stick with it. I'm not just going to give it a year or two. I want to make a career of it.
"It's certainly less common for someone to peak in their mid or late twenties, but it does happen. Several players have gone to university in the States and then picked up their careers, although people like John Isner and Benjamin Becker did so with the aim of playing a lot of very competitive tennis there and then leaving to play full-time. I went to university to get my degree, though I chose Stirling because it gave me the opportunity to carry on playing tennis at a decent level. What I have on my side is that I'm a pretty late developer. When I went to university I definitely wasn't ready for full-time tennis."
Fleming believes that a place in the top 100 in singles and doubles is well within his grasp. He plays wherever the most points are on offer, including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and the Ivory Coast, where the intense heat and humidity did not prevent him and Skupski winning the doubles title.
"The worst place I've ever played was in a tiny little town in Russia," he said. "There were only three courts and nowhere to practise. There was no clubhouse, just two Portakabins – one for the referee, one for the players to change in – with just one toilet.
"We stayed at a guesthouse. It was pretty rough. There were flies everywhere at night. The food wasn't too good, so I just settled for not eating enough, but you learn from an experience like that. You just have to think, 'I'm going to work hard and make sure I don't have to come back here'."
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