Murray's path to glory made in Spain with a clay base

Countdown to Wimbledon: Say it quietly, a British 16-year-old is causing a stir

When people bemoan the dismal prospects for British tennis, it is evident they have not heard of Andrew Murray. That is not altogether surprising, since Andrew is only just 16, and at the end of last year stood at 255 in the world junior rankings. Now, propelled by hugely impressive showings in both singles and doubles, the six-footer from Dunblane has shot up to 11th in the world inside six months, and is Britain's best.

Despite regularly having to face opponents two years his senior, there have been two major singles titles and six successive doubles championships so far in 2003. And all of them on clay, a surface traditionally alien to British tastes and skills. This is a tribute not only to the level of tennis available at Emilio Sanchez's academy in Barcelona, where he is based, but also to Andrew's determination to master the art of clay-court tennis. There is also an impressive confidence to be set alongside that determination.

"I want to be in the top 10 in the world, first in the juniors and then grown-ups," said the quiet-spoken Scot. "I love doing sport and don't enjoy going to school, so it's either tennis or nothing. I think I do everything quite well. I am quick around the court and I am intelligent, probably my two main strengths."

The £30,000-a-year cost of learning the game at the school run by Sanchez and his one-time Spanish Davis Cup doubles partner, Sergio Casal, is partly covered by the Lawn Tennis Association and Tennis Scotland, and topped up by a supermarket and soft-drinks company. In addition, the Scottish Institute of Sport have set up a strengthening and conditioning programme for Andrew, which extends to sending someone to Barcelona to monitor his progress.

Murray has been at the Academia Sanchez-Casal since last September, though he spent much of the winter and spring playing clay-court events in South America and Europe. Though his travelling coach is a fellow Scot, Leon Smith, Andrew has spent priceless time hitting with Sanchez and Casal in Spain, and has impressed both.

Praising Andrew as "a very talented player", Sanchez added: "His big strengths are that he has a very good selection of shots and is very mature for his age. That means his head is pretty well set. He has a clear focus on what he wants to do. He has many different options to hurt an opponent - a good serve, good ground- strokes and good approaches. He also has good definition at the net.

"This kid will go far if he becomes strong in the legs. He is going to get consistency by practising on clay, and that will help him for all his goals. And in Spain we have so many players trying to make it he is always challenged. Competition is the key. He has to work a lot harder to become better than the Spanish, but he knows this and that is why I think he is going to succeed."

Smith, who has worked with Murray for the past five years, said: "One of the best things about going to Spain was that there is such a wide variation of hitters for him, which obviously can't be provided in Britain, because there are not enough people playing tennis at that level. But in Barcelona there are enough ATP Tour players to hit with, so it made good sense." Andrew agreed. "Going there has basically helped develop my game a lot. I know now how to play on clay, how to use the angles and stuff."

That much was obvious at the Pony Malta Cup in Barranquilla, Colombia, in January, when Murray swept through six matches without dropping a set. On a gruelling tour, he reached a semi-final in Bolivia and quarter-finals in Peru and Paraguay, before returning to Europe to win the Citta Di Pratto international event in Italy, again without dropping a set and conceding just 19 games in five rounds. At the recent French Open, it took the 18-year-old world No 1 junior, Marco Baghdatis of Cyprus, to halt him in the third round, and in the junior event at this weekend's Stella Artois tournament in London he reached the semi-finals in the afternoon, having lost in the final round of the pre-qualifying for the Wimbledon main draw in the morning. Andrew's singles record for 2003 is won 35, lost 11, while in doubles he has not lost a match since January.

Murray was introduced to tennis aged three by his mother, Judy, a former Scottish champion who is now the national coach for Tennis Scotland. She coached him from six to nine. "But not any more," he pointed out. "She basically stays out of the way and just acts as my mum now."

Smith, who took over from Judy Murray, said: "Andrew's tactical awareness is better than anyone else in the juniors, while his main strength is his shot selection. And he is really single-minded about what he wants. But it is important not to rush anything. It doesn't matter whether you get there at 16 or 21, as long as you make it, and I am sure Andrew will, through hard work and determination."

There have, of course, been other talented British juniors who failed to make the step up into the big time, but the intention of those who guide Andrew Murray to move him up to the Futures and Challengers senior level after Junior Wimbledon is an indication of the faith they have in the talent of a clay-court wizard who claims his best surface is grass.

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