Review of the year: Tennis
Rise of a teenage heir to Henman
Friday 30 December 2005
From a British perspective, the tennis year was about Andy in Wonderland. Andy Murray, an 18-year-old from Dunblane, experienced a remarkable first season on the professional tour. It was not only a matter of what Murray achieved in raising his world ranking from 411 to 63, but also of what he sampled, first-hand, and gained from life among the sport's élite.
Having arrived on the scene as the 2004 US Open junior champion, Murray discovered how good the players on the ATP Tour really are, and realised that he was able to compete with the best of them. Learning how to beat the best of them will be the crux of his higher education and, crucially, time is on his side.
A back injury caused him to miss the first three months of the ATP season, though he made a successful Davis Cup debut in Israel, partnering David Sherwood to success in the doubles. Murray was unable to go to the Australian Open, where the Russian Marat Safin relieved Roger Federer of the men's singles title, defeating the Swiss world No 1 in the semi-finals and Australia's Lleyton Hewitt in the final. In the women's singles in Melbourne, Serena Williams revived her family's fortunes by defeating her American compatriot Lindsay Davenport in the final.
Murray's debut on the ATP Tour in April gave little indication of the encouraging form he would later display. Although playing on slow clay courts in Barcelona, where he developed his baseline game, he was dispatched in the first round.
Nor was there much to cheer about from his appearance in the junior tournament at the French Open in Paris, where, in the main event, the 19-year-old Spanish prodigy Rafael Nadal won his first ever Grand Slam title.
After defeating Federer in the men's singles semi-finals, the powerful Nadal overcame Mariano Puerta, of Argentina, in the final. Justine Henin-Hardenne, of Belgium, made an impressive return from illness and injury by winning the women's singles, losing only two games against Mary Pierce in the final.
Grass courts may be considered too fast to suit Murray's ground-stroke style, but the lanky young Scot's game came alive when he was invited to play at London's Queen's Club en route to Wimbledon. Murray advanced to the third round at Queen's with an emphatic win over Taylor Dent, an American ranked in the world's top 40, only for an ankle injury to deny him victory against Thomas Johansson, a former Australian Open champion.
His Wimbledon debut was enthralling. He began with a straight-sets win against George Bastl, of Switzerland, the man who ended the great Pete Sampras's Wimbledon career in 2002. Then came another victory in straight sets, this time against the 15th-ranked Radek Stepanek, of the Czech Republic.
In the third round, Murray stepped on to Centre Court for the first time. His opponent was the 19th-ranked David Nalbandian, a shrewd, sturdy baseliner from Argentina who was the runner-up to Lleyton Hewitt in 2002.
Kitted out in Fred Perry sportswear, the company founded by the last British male to win a Grand Slam singles title, he played masterfully for two sets. He won the opening set 7-6 and the second 6-1, and created enough game points to have taken a 3-0 lead in the third. But Murray did not convert those opportunities, and Nalbandian went on to take the set 6-0.
Although Murray rallied in the fourth set, and came close to placing himself in a position to serve for the match, Nalbandian prevailed, and a weary Murray was unable to persuade his legs to obey his wishes in the fifth set, in which he salvaged only one game. Nalbandian won, 6-7, 1-6, 6-0, 6-4, 6-1.
Wimbledon belonged to the magnificent Federer for the third year in a row, and Venus Williams surprisingly won the women's singles for a third time, defeating Davenport in the longest ever Wimbledon women's final, 4-6, 7-6, 9-7, after two hours 45 minutes.
Before the year was out, Murray reached his first ATP Tour final, in Bangkok, where he gave a creditable display in his first match against Federer, who beat him 6-3, 7-5. That was followed by a landmark victory for Murray in his first match against Tim Henman, the British No 1, in Basle, 6-2, 5-7, 7-6.
Murray said Henman had inspired him to make tennis his career. The signs are that it was a good choice.
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