Murray makes perfect start to year with win over Nadal
British No 1 looks lean and mean as he takes title in Abu Dhabi exhibition event
It may have been only an exhibition tournament, but Andy Murray could hardly have made a better start to what he hopes will be a momentous year. Having beaten Roger Federer, the world No 2, in Friday's semi-finals at the so-called "World Tennis Championship" in Abu Dhabi, Murray went on to beat the No 1, Rafael Nadal, 6-4 5-7 6-3 in yesterday's final.
The winner-takes-all first prize of $250,000 (about £172,000) – added to an appearance fee that may well have been in excess of that figure – gave the 21-year-old Scot good reason to smile after his victory, though he will take greater pleasure from the fact that he looks set to hit the ground running in 2009. He now heads along the Gulf coast to Doha for the Qatar Open, which begins tomorrow and willbe his only tournament before the Australian Open in a fortnight's time.
Following his breakthrough season last year, when he climbed to No 4 in the world rankings and reached his first Grand Slam final, Murray again spent the off-season concentrating on physical work. He was in Miami for most of December with his coaching and fitness team, spending many hours on the track and in the gym.
Just as his improved physical condition was a major factor in his results last year, so Murray's fitness was evident against Nadal, who has been making his first appearance since suffering the knee injury that kept him off court at the end of last season and forced him to miss Spain's Davis Cup final victory over Argentina.
It was Murray's first meeting with Nadal since he beat him for the first time in the semi-finals of last year's US Open. "It was a tough match," Murray said afterwards. "He made me do a lot of running, and in the first week of the year you obviously feel it in your body a bit. I worked really hard in November and December to give myself the best chance in Australia. I've never been past the fourth round before, but I'll give it my best shot."
The two men served up some thrilling tennis for the capacity crowd at Zayed Sports City, though it would be wrong to draw any major conclusions from the match. The players rarely read anything into exhibition events, which they sometimes use to try out particular shots and strategies.
While the tennis can be spectacular – as it was yesterday – this is often because the players take risks and go for shots they would not try in serious competition. The results of exhibition matches do not go into the record books and players can be happy to lose, knowing they have not shown their full hand.
Doha, which Murray sees as ideal preparation for Melbourne, will be a different matter. Playing there provides a good level of competition and leaves him a week in Australia to prepare for the year's first Grand Slam event. Murray won in Doha last year, beating Nikolay Davydenko and Stanislas Wawrinka on his way to the first of his five titles in 2008. Two years ago he reached the final, losing to Ivan Ljubicic.
This year's field is stronger than ever and includes Nadal, Federer, Andy Roddick and seven other top-50 players. Murray's first opponent will be Spain's Albert Montanes, the winner to play Philipp Petzschner or Jérémy Chardy. Murray is seeded to play Dmitry Tursunov in the quarter-finals and Federer in the semis, with Nadal heading the other half of the draw.
After Doha, Murray will fly on to Melbourne. The Australian Open is played on hard courts, his favourite surface, but has not been the most productive of tournaments for him.
On his debut three years ago, Murray lost in the first round to Juan Ignacio Chela and was unhappy about what he saw as the media's weight of expectation on his shoulders. The following year was better, a run to the fourth round ending with a five-set loss to Nadal, but there was more disappointment last year, when he again went out in the opening round, although his conqueror, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, went on to beat Nadal en route to his first Grand Slam final.
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