Andy Murray was about to play in his 20th Masters final, Roberto Bautista Agut in his first. The Briton was not just ranked No2 but in the hunt for the No1 ranking by the end of the year. The Spaniard, ranked 19, was 25 at the start of the year, but he was now up to No13 in the Race to London, and a win here would take him to No10.
The two had played only twice before, with Bautista Agut not even close to winning a set, yet in this Shanghai draw he had beaten some of the best players on the tour, from promising teenager Taylor Fritz, to No9 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga—who was last year’s losing finalist—and then defending champion and world No1, Novak Djokovic, all without dropping a set, or even facing a tie-break.
Yet for all that he and Murray had met so seldom, that he had edged close to World Tour Final qualification for the first time, that his 48 match-wins this year was a career best, the Spaniard was no newcomer to the tour. This was his 12th on the pro circuit, and at age 28, he was only a year younger than Murray.
Nor was Bautista Agut cut from the usual Spanish cloth. Every one of his four titles and five further finals had come on hard courts: Indeed he was second only to Djokovic in hard-court matches won this year, on 37. He was an aggressive hitter from the baseline, but neither big in height or weight. He was, instead, light, wiry figure with a blistering forehand and the ability to use angles and drops to great effect.
But if the Spaniard was to score back-to-back top-10 wins for the first time, he had to top the man of the moment. Murray arrived with more matches in his legs than anyone else on the tour. By the time he reached this final, he was up to 73, 64 of them wins.
For since losing the final of the Madrid Masters to Djokovic, Murray had reached seven finals and won five of them, including Wimbledon and Olympic gold. And judging by his Shanghai results, where he scored wins over two men with the chance of making the World Tour Finals, Lucas Pouille and David Goffin, he was still in peak condition.
What’s more, Murray has always thrived in this Asian swing: Twice a champion from three finals in Shanghai, he was on a nine-match, 18-set streak that began in Beijing last week.
And all that in addition to tracking down the No1 ranking.
But Bautista Agut would be a tough nut to crack, as the first half dozen games of the match showed. From deuce in the fifth game, he lunged for a stunning half volley winner and then fired a forehand—his most destructive shot—onto the baseline to hold. He took Murray to deuce in the sixth game too, but the Briton also resisted, and burst through the Spanish defences in the next game with a cracking return of serve followed by a ball deep and wide to the Spaniard’s backhand—an oft repeated tactic—to break.
Bautista Agut had no intention of backing off, and pressured Murray to deuce in the next, and that pressure began to show in the monologue from the Briton on almost every point.
Murray berated himself: “You’re so flat, come on!” And the tension grew to fever pitch as Murray served for he set at 5-4. A couple of errors, then an ace, cancelled by a double fault, and Murray was churning: Why? Why?”
And when Bautista Agut hit a sizzling return of serve at Murray’s feet to draw another error and the break, he looked ready to implode—especially when Bautista Agut consolidated with a love hold, 6-5.
But it is Murray’s mental fortitude as well as his physical resilience that has increasingly characterised his tennis and delivered such consistency. He has taken to carrying notes in his bag—nothing complicated, just reminders to stay calm and remember his game plan—and those notes now played their part.
Murray returned to court a different man, fired down three aces, and held to love, and with an hour on the clock, he blasted through the tie-break, for the set, 7-6(1).
He began the second set in similarly clinical style, holding with another ace, and Bautista Agut struggled to find answers to Murray’s remarkable defence and penetrating attack. The Spaniard began to over-press, and gave up a quick break.
Murray was not out of the woods, though: another flurry of forehands from Bautista Agut and a brave net finish got the break back, but his resistance was short-lived. Murray broke twice, and served out the set, 6-1, after just another 30 minutes of play, to become the three-time Shanghai champion.
The victory takes Murray to fewer than 1,000 behind the man who has topped the rankings for over two years, Djokovic, and after a short break at home to recover, the Briton heads to a potential 500 points in Vienna.
The Serb, meanwhile, intends to regroup from a weary and uncharacteristically erratic performance in Asia, so their paths cannot cross again until the Paris Masters, where Djokovic is again defending champion, and then the points-rich World Tour Finals.
There is, therefore, no doubting that Murray could catch Djokovic by the end of the year, but as the Briton pointed out, that is only possible if his great rival fails to win points of his own.
“My goal wasn’t to finish No1 at the end of the year. The last few months I’ve played very well, but at the start of year, Novak won Doha, the Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and the French Open, and the finals in Rome.
“Obviously the early part of next year there is an opportunity [for me].” Murray took a month out in February for the birth of his daughter and lost early in Indian Wells and Miami.
“Under a 1,000 points doesn’t sound much but that assumes Novak doesn’t win any more matches. I don’t think he’s lost an indoor match for a very long time.”
Indeed Djokovic has won the Paris Masters and World Tour Finals back-to-back for the last three years.
But much will depend on how Djokovic regroups after a tough summer and autumn—and Paris may provide the answer.
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