Who would have thought it: Andy Murray, the pensioners' hero? "I get a lot of fan mail and a lot of it is from older people, from 65- or 70-year-olds," the 21-year-old Scot said last week before heading off to his winter training camp in Miami. "It's a mixture, but it's surprising that I get so many from grannies and grandpas. They say, 'It's been great to watch you.' It's just very supportive about everything I've done."
Not long ago, Murray was a scowling teenager whose on-court rants met with muttering disapproval from a nation accustomed to the gentlemanly conduct of Tim Henman. Maturity, however, has brought a change. The scowl may not have been replaced – yet – by a permanent smile, but the image portrayed by the 21-year-old Scot is of a young man wholly focused on his ambition to reach the top, his commitment underlined by his appetite for hard work.
Anger management has played a major part in his professional life. "It was something I always wanted to get better, and I did always say that around this time I would work on it and it would definitely improve," Murray said. "I think the physical side of things has made a huge difference. I find playing a tennis match much easier than before because the work off the court is much harder. The angry moments come out in the gym or on the running track rather than on the tennis court. That has made a big difference, especially in the long matches in the [Grand] Slams."
That difference has been there for all to see after an outstanding second half of the season saw Murray climb to No 4 in the world and earn more ranking points than any of his rivals. He reached his first Grand Slam final, won two Masters Series titles in succession and took his tally of tournament wins this year to five, more than any British man in history.
"Last year I finished at No 11 in the rankings after missing three-and-a-half or four months with my wrist injury," he said. "I didn't really feel right again until the indoor season. So if I had been injury-free there was a good chance that I would have finished around five or six in the world. I wanted to try to get back to that level.
"I didn't expect the end of this year to be as good as it was. I expected the start to be maybe a bit better, because I did start the year before very well. So it would be nice to just try to have a very consistent start to next year and take it from there."
While Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic are well clear of the field in the world rankings list, Murray has put clear water between himself and the rest. Can he sustain his improvement to join the big three on the horizon? His recent record suggests that anything is possible.
Murray has beaten Federer three times this year (Nadal and David Nalbandian are the only other players to have done that in a season) and has turned the tide against Nadal and Djokovic, who held 5-0 and 4-0 head-to-head records respectively against him earlier this year. Having got the better of Djokovic in their past two contests, Murray beat Nadal for the first time in the US Open semi-finals.
The Scot combines a pleasing lack of false modesty with admiration for the consistency of his predecessors and the current top three, and he regularly stresses he still has a long way to go to match Henman's achievements domestically and those of Nadal and Federer on the world stage.
Does he now see himself as part of a gang of four at the top of the international game? "It depends how you look at it. Obviously in terms of ranking points I'm a long, long way behind the other three, but my results over those guys speak for themselves. I can win against them, though if I'm going to be right in amongst them I need to play consistently well for the whole year rather than just right at the end."
How does he expect the big three to perform next year? "I think Rafa will be fine come January," Murray said, referring to the knee injury that troubled the world No 1 in the closing weeks of the season. "I still think he'll dominate the clay-court season again. He did make a lot of improvements to his game this year.
"I'm sure Federer will work hard and try to get his No 1 ranking back, which he's definitely capable of doing if he plays consistently well throughout the year, because his form, for him, was a bit patchy at times this year. And Djokovic is going to be around there. He plays well pretty much every week."
Murray welcomes the weight of expectation on his own shoulders. "It's not a bad thing at all," he said. "I've always said I want to win a Grand Slam, so it's not as though there's any extra pressure. I've always wanted to try to do that. It gives me confidence that I'm closer now than I ever was. I can still improve on a lot of things and I believe I can do it, whether it's next year or in the next two or three years."
Success means it is harder for Murray to walk down the street unrecognised, but his shunning of a celebrity lifestyle would no doubt appeal to those older newcomers to his fan club. "I don't really go out that much," he said. "I spend a lot of time on Wimbledon Common walking the dog. Pretty dull, actually."Reuse content