Murray won at the magnificent Qizhong Tennis Centre in 2010 and 2011, and was runner-up in 2012. But he has also won in Shenzhen and was losing semi-finalist to six-time champion Novak Djokovic in Beijing last year.
His 2014 Asian swing was just part of a gruelling six tournaments on the bounce as Murray raced to qualify for the World Tour Finals, and although he qualified, he was all but burnt out by the time London came around.
This year, though, with his form on an ever-upward trajectory following back surgery at the end of the 2013, there has been no need for such scheduling. Indeed things were already looking very good for the Briton as he arrived in Shanghai fresh from an extended break.
Already No2 in the Race to London, he rose to No2 in the overall rankings as well, all courtesy of four titles—two of them Masters—and 61 match-wins for just 10 losses, plus the final of the Australian Open and Miami Masters. Along the way, in winning the Canadian Masters, Murray also halted his losing run against the best in the world, Djokovic—a huge psychological boost should their paths cross, as expected, in the Shanghai semis.
But that was for the future: first, Murray had to prove that the rest and recuperation he had enjoyed since leading Great Britain to the Davis Cup final in September had prepared him for his opener against the No47-ranked American, Steve Johnson.
As defending champion Roger Federer had proven in his opener that it can be a risky business taking time out from match-play: Before the sharpness has been honed, a lower-ranked but acclimatised player can quickly take advantage. It looked as though Johnson, fresh from a good three-set win over Andreas Seppi, was up for the battle, and he broke Murray in the first game.
But the world No2 was soon on his game, broke back, and broke again in the fourth, and took a 4-1 lead. Johnson, despite attacking at every opportunity on his own serve and attempting to undermine Murray’s defence with repeated deep sliced backhands, would win just one more game, as Murray broke again to take the first set, 6-2.
It was a similar pattern in the second set: Johnson boldly going for the net—and showing some fine touch and angle with his volleys—and Murray absorbing it all before turning the attack back against the American.
They edged to 3-3, and then Johnson had a chance to break Murray, helped by two double faults from the Briton. Murray fought off the two break points, but Johnson was also on a serving roll, and levelled 4-4 first with a volley winner then an ace.
Come the crucial moment, however—Johnson serving to stay in the set—Murray produced a bit more magic with a lob over the net-racing Johnson for three break points, and a cracking return of serve drew one final error and victory, 6-4, in a tidy 76 minutes.
The final stats showed that Murray had really taken the game to the American in the second set, cranking up his own net game to win 11 points from 18 in the forecourt. Talking afterwards to Sky Sports, he identified this as an important element in the match: “I thought I played well, struck the balls very clean off both sides, returned well, serve was good.
“Thought I moved forward a lot in the match to try to finish at the net, but I could have been a bit more precise up there—maybe slightly better shot selection when I was up at the net could have made things a bit easier in the second set.”
For admirers of Murray’s huge package of skills, it is a delight to see him integrate more attacking plays into his famed counter-punching game. The fast courts in Shanghai should also reap rewards for such tactics—and he will need both defensive and offensive options to defuse his next opponent, John Isner. The tall, huge-serving American No 13 seed was just as quick in beating the dangerous No16-ranked David Goffin.
Murray has a 4-0 winning record over Isner, though he was only too aware of the danger posed on these quick courts: “Obviously will be a tough match. I think he quite likes conditions here. It’s a little bit quicker, and he’s always a tough guy to play against if he serves well… last week in Beijing he said the conditions in the evening were extremely slow, so it was tougher for him to hold serve, whereas here [it’s] a little bit easier—makes it tough for me. But I’ve played well against him in the past and hopefully I do again tomorrow.”
Further into the draw, the quarters will pose either No10 Gilles Simon, who took three sets to beat Leonardo Mayer, or No5 seed Tomas Berdych, who was also involved in a compelling three-setter against Jack Sock. So plenty of tests before the scheduled big one against his old adversary, the form man of the year, Djokovic.
Murray, though, is confident that his streamlined schedule since the US Open and on towards London and the Davis Cup final, is reaping rewards.
“I didn’t hit balls for about eight days after the Davis Cup [semi-final]. I took like five full days off when I did nothing. Now that I’m a bit older, I need to keep my body moving a little bit, so the week after the Davis Cup, I got in the swimming pool, did some mobility work, some Pilates, to try and keep myself loose… I’ve also taken a couple of days off before coming here.
“Physically I feel good. I think it was very important to get that rest. I think mentally too it was a tough few months from after Wimbledon. I played a lot of tennis there. Davis Cup matches, as much as they are rewarding—you feel great when you win—it’s also mentally draining when you play three games in a row, when there’s a lot riding on each one.
“And after this event I’ve got another couple of weeks where I won’t be playing matches and hopefully stay fresh for the end of the year. But I feel good right now and I’m happy with the decisions I’ve made in terms of my schedule. I hope it works through to the end of the year.”
Murray is scheduled to play the Paris Masters and the World Tour Finals next month before completing his season at the Davis Cup final in Belgium in the last week of November.
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