The mangled racket on the ground next to his seat told you everything about Andy Murray’s determination to give of his best every week from now onwards. The US Open champion was beaten 6-3, 6-7, 7-6 by Milos Raonic here yesterday in the semi-finals of the Japan Open, his first tournament since New York, but played with a passion that you might not have expected at the end of long season from a man who has just won his first Grand Slam title and Olympic gold.
It was in the second set, after one of many frustrating games trying to break Raonic’s huge serve, that Murray smashed his racket, for which he was given a code violation for the second time in the week. The Scot, nevertheless, stuck to his task, despite never finding his best tennis, and should have won after taking a 4-1 lead in the deciding set.
Having lost the first set after dropping his serve in the opening game, Murray levelled by winning the first tie-break and then appeared to have the match in control when he became the first player to break Raonic’s serve here.
Even after the Canadian broke back, Murray had two match points when Raonic served at 5-6, the world No 14 twice putting himself on the edge of the precipice with double faults. He saved the first with a smash but was relieved to see Murray put a routine backhand long on the second and went on to win the tie-break 7-4. The victory earned Raonic a meeting today with Kei Nishikori, who became the first Japanese player to reach this final for 40 years when he beat Marcos Baghdatis 6-2, 6-2.
Murray now heads for this week’s Shanghai Masters, where he will again be defending the title. He is determined to finish the year on a high, with next month’s Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London a major goal. Ivan Lendl, his coach, will rejoin him the week before the event at the O2 Arena.
The world No 4 wants to avoid a repeat of the end of last year, when he suffered a groin injury and had to pull out of London after his first match. The last week’s performances are also evidence of his determination to avoid the dips in form which has suffered in the past.
'I think I’m just conscious of not wanting to go through stretches like I went through earlier this year and have tournaments like I did at Indian Wells or Queen’s or Rome,' he said.
'I didn’t feel like I was necessarily there 100 per cent today, but I fought right through to the end, even though I didn’t necessarily play amazing tennis, and managed to get myself in a winning position. I want to make sure that each week and at each tournament between now and the end of the year I try to finish strong and not let the momentum drop off.'
He added: 'I know how disappointed I was at the end of last year for a few weeks afterwards and I want to make sure I give everything in the matches and also make sure that I’m as fit and fresh as possible.'
There has been a new air of self-confidence about Murray throughout the last week. He agreed that he felt like a man who has had a great weight taken off his shoulders with his first Grand Slam title.
'Every single match I’ve played in the past I was always having to prove something,' he said. 'Whether it was in the first round of Brisbane or the semi-finals or final of a Grand Slam, I felt like I was always putting a lot of pressure on myself.
'It’s not as though I’m wanting to lose my matches now — I’m trying my best to win — but beforehand I would think it was a huge disappointment or setback, regardless of the tournament, if I lost and I would sometimes find it hard for a few days. I don’t have that sense right now.
'I know I’m not always going to play my best, but I’m starting to realise that if I don’t I can still find ways of winning matches. That’s something I’ve spoken a lot to Ivan about.'
After London Murray will go to Miami for a training block with Lendl, who has a competition of his own to look forward to. Lendl and Jez Green, one of Murray’s trainers, are going head-to-head in a challenge on a climbing machine. Both men are taking it seriously, although Murray said he had been given a different insight into Lendl’s preparations by Dani Vallverdu, a member of the Scot’s coaching team.
'Ivan and Jez are both saying they’re working hard, eating well, losing weight, but Dani was on the phone to Ivan when he was back in London,' Murray said. 'Ivan said: ‘Hang on a second, Dani, I’m just going to order some food.’ He put the phone down, but Dani could still hear what he was saying and he ordered two Egg McMuffins and a sausage from McDonald’s.
'Dani didn’t say anything to Ivan but then he told me, so I’ve been saying things to Ivan like: ‘There are some rumours going around that you’ve not been eating that well.’ He doesn’t know where that’s come from so I think he thinks it’s one of his daughters who has told me.'
Who does Murray think will win? 'My money’s on Ivan. Jez should win.
He’s got, like, 10 years on him, but Ivan’s a little bit psychotic, so
he’s not going to want to lose that.'