Twelve months ago Andy Murray headed for the Hamburg Masters as the world No 10, his ranking buoyed by a fine start to the year. He had successfully defended his San Jose title and finished runner-up in Doha, played in successive Masters Series semi-finals in Indian Wells and Miami, and equalled his best performance in a Grand Slam event by reaching the fourth round of the Australian Open, where he lost a five-set thriller to Rafael Nadal.
As Murray, now the world No 18, prepares for this year’s Hamburg Masters, which begins on Sunday, he may well reflect on the events of the last year. His memories of the Hamburg tournament will no doubt be painful, for it was at this event that he suffered the wrist injury that wrecked his summer. The British No 1 was back on court again within three months, but although he has since added three more titles to his cv – St Petersburg, Doha and Marseille – he has yet to recover all the ground he has lost since last spring.
In particular, Murray’s yield from the most important events of 2008 has been disappointing. He lost in the first round in the Australian Open, where he had the misfortune to be drawn against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, while his best performances in Masters series events have been runs to the last 16 in both Indian Wells and Monte-Carlo, where he was beaten by Tommy Haas and Novak Djokovic respectively. In Miami Murray lost to Mario Ancic in his opening contest and here at the Rome Masters he won one match before going down in straight sets to Stanislas Wawrinka.
Clay is by no means alien to Murray, who trained on it as a teenager at the Sanchez-Casal academy in Barcelona, but the surface has been his least productive since his arrival in the senior ranks. His 2006 and 2007 seasons were so dogged by injury that he played just nine tour matches on clay in 24 months, winning only twice.
“My expectations for this clay season weren't to go and win these tournaments,” Murray said here in the wake of his 6-2, 7-6 defeat by Wawrinka. “I wanted to learn how to play and move again on the clay and start to feel comfortable. I feel like I'm starting to play my game a bit better. I need to play more matches and get physically stronger, win matches and get some confidence on the surface. Then I feel like I'll be able to win more matches.”
Murray saw no cause for particular concern in losing to Wawrinka, who has climbed to No 24 in the world rankings and reached the semi-finals in Barcelona last week. “He's a very good clay-court player,” Murray said. “I didn't feel like I was completely outclassed, which is a good thing.”
Given that he had so few points to defend going into the clay season, Murray should make progress up the rankings in next week’s updated list, despite winning only one match here. Any wins in Hamburg will be a further bonus following his early exit last year and the Scot will be hoping to be among the top 16 seeds when the French Open starts in Paris a fortnight on Sunday. That would ensure that he would not meet a higher-ranked player until at least the fourth round. With a decent run at Roland Garros – where he has no points to defend - Murray might even go into the grass-court season as a top 10 player.
Nevertheless, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Scot could be doing better at this stage of the season. He clearly has more talent than a player like Wawrinka, who is a solid ball striker but plays with little finesse. However, Murray needs to find a consistently higher level of play within his matches. For much of the second set he played with impressive aggression, attacking Wawrinka’s serve and dominating rallies, but at other times he was too negative and allowed the Swiss to dictate the exchanges. Sometimes it was a case of poor shot selection. Although few men can play drop shots as exquisitely as Murray, he loses too many points by choosing the wrong moment to play the stroke.
A comment Murray made after his first-round victory here over Juan Martin del Potro was revealing. “I was actually hitting the ball really, really well, but it was as though I wasn’t thinking at all,” he said. “I’d put in two good points and then three or four stupid shots and wasn’t thinking that much about tactics. But I felt like I was hitting the ball really well, I wasn't mishitting balls. I just wasn’t really thinking as much as I should have been.”
That description could be applied to a number of Murray’s defeats. The British No 1 is a great ball-striker, a delightfully inventive player, a fine athlete and a ferocious competitor. Now he must aim to combine those qualities with the sort of consistency of performance and strategy that lifts the best players above the rest.