But the warning signs were already there: Murray had chronic back problems that forced him to retire at the Rome Masters and bypass Roland Garros last summer. So his unbroken grass run through Queen’s and Wimbledon, seen with hindsight, was a towering achievement, for by the autumn, he had opted for back surgery that would keep him out of competition for the rest of the year.
While his return in Australia so soon after rehab was impressive—a quarter-final run stopped only by Roger Federer in four sets—his results remained inconsistent. In fairness, though, most of his losses were to top-flight players: Rafael Nadal in the French Open semis and Novak Djokovic in the Miami quarters is about as easy as taking on Usain Bolt in an Olympic 100m final—a Herculean task.
Murray’s absence from the tour had also affected his ranking, so he was increasingly faced with top seeds in the quarters of draws—and he has fallen at that stage in every tournament since Wimbledon.
Now ranked No11, and in danger of failing to qualify for the World Tour Finals, he made the smart decision to take wild cards for this week’s debut playing of the Shenzhen 250 and next week’s Beijing 500, before returning to the Masters where he has enjoyed unparalleled success. Shanghai has yielded two titles from three finals, and this year Murray has the added bonus that he can pile on the ranking points not just for the Race to London but in his 12-month ranking too.
It seems, too, that the Asian swing is again working its magic on Murray: He is into his first final since that far-off Wimbledon victory.
As expected, it proved to be a tough task against the experienced former top-10 Juan Monaco, who had already beaten No3 seed Richard Gasquet with some fine and aggressive tennis the day before.
The Argentine has been working his way back from a plummet in the rankings, and this was now his third semi-final since missing Wimbledon with injury. And just as in their last meeting, almost four year ago, it would take three sets to decide the outcome.
Monaco started the better, breaking Murray no fewer than three times in the first set. The Briton pulled one of them back, but Monaco’s serving and angled ground-strokes kept Murray at bay, 6-2.
In the second set, they exchanged breaks, but now Murray’s serve and backhand were making more inroads and fewer errors. He capitalised on a break chance in the eighth game to take the lead, and served it out, 6-3.
With the sun now dipping below the stands, the heat subsided just a little, though the humidity remained as punishing as it has throughout the tournament. Murray, his hat discarded, began to play with greater confidence, accuracy and fluidity, much to the Chinese fans’ delight—and Murray is hugely popular in this country. In the third set, he was all over the Monaco serve, returning particularly well. He broke straight away, and twice more, to sweep to a 6-0 win.
Murray will now play the evergreen 32-year-old Tommy Robredo, who is also in search of his first title in over a year, and his first on a hard court in seven years.
The Spaniard has enjoyed a great return to the tour after missing much of 2012 after leg surgery, and then the end of 2013 with a wrist injury. Now ranked 22, he has scored wins over Gasquet, Marin Cilic and Novak Djokovic this year. And with his win over Santiago Giraldo, 6-1, 6-4, Robredo moved to within seven of his 500th match-win.
But if Murray and Robredo have been waiting for a title for a long time, spare a thought for another veteran of the tour, Julien Benneteau. Also 32, he has yet to win a title from nine previous finals, but has the chance to convert his third consecutive final in Kuala Lumpur tomorrow.
He beat No2 seed Ernests Gulbis, 6-4, 6-4, in the semis, but now faces the top seed and US Open finalist, Kei Nishikori. It could well be 10th time unlucky for the Frenchman.
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BIOGRAPHY: Lucas Torreira