Onwards and upwards as Andy Murray beats Grigor Dimitrov in Beijing for 40th title

Andy Murray landed his 40th career title on Sunday after beating Grigor Dimitrov in the China Open final

So much has been written of Andy Murray’s 2016: his best-ever clay season, his first French Open final, a record fifth Queen’s title, a second Wimbledon—and third Grand Slam—title, and how he became the first man to win two singles Olympic golds.

He followed all that with a Cincinnati final run, with yet another blood-on-the-court effort through a strained thigh, extraordinary fatigue, and the longest match of his career, in the Davis Cup semi-final. It was ultimately a lost cause, despite Murray’s three matches on back-to-back days, but that did not stop him playing his charity fundraiser in Glasgow just days later.

And that all brought into focus one of the biggest prizes in tennis: the chance of claiming the No1 ranking. What, back at the start of the 2016, looked mission impossible, with Novak Djokovic standing top of the pile at almost 17,000 points, twice as many as Murray, has gradually become mission possible as a result of Murray’s dominant run and some physical struggles for the Serb.

Murray’s cause is now of course helped by Djokovic’s extraordinary run this time last year. The Serb went from the US Open to the season’s climax at the World Tour Finals without losing a match: Titles in New York, Beijing, Shanghai, Paris and London. But the sting in that winning tail is that he now has huge points to defend.

The ladder to the top gained a few more rungs for Murray when Djokovic pulled out of Beijing with a lingering injury. Could the Briton bounce back from his exhausting exploits to take advantage?

He took on Grigor Dimitrov, whose ranking has also been a topic of conversation this season.

From No11 at the start of 2015, the popular Bulgarian had slipped to 28 as he struggled to get beyond the second round of tournaments. This year, a disaster of a clay season—Round 1 losses in Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros—was followed by Round 1 exits on his favourite surface, the grass of Stuttgart and London. He thus entered Wimbledon unseeded, lost in the third round, and arrived in North America ranked 40.

With confidence hard to come by, though, he tied up with a new coach, Dani Vallverdu, and gradually began to find his way back: first the quarters of Toronto, then the semis in Cincinnati, the fourth round of the US Open, and in Beijing this week, he reached the final via a first win in eight attempts over Rafael Nadal.

It was, it so happened, Dimitrov who stepped in at the last moment to help Murray at that Glasgow fund-raiser, where he charmed even the partisan Murray crowd with his good humour and flamboyant tennis—a timely reminder of what an in-form Dimitrov can bring to court. He had, indeed, beaten Murray in Cincinnati, only to be swept aside in New York. So this match promised much, but one blink from Dimitrov, and Murray was all over him.

Unfortunately, that blink came in a nervous opening game. Two double faults from the Bulgarian, and a blistering backhand cross-court winning pass from Murray, and the break was immediate.

Once he settled, though, Dimitrov put up a strong challenge to a hyper-aggressive Murray who played close to the baseline and took the ball early, especially on return of serve. Long, probing rallies were punctuated by some exciting net points, and Murray almost broke again in the third game after opening the court for a running forehand winner.

In the sixth game, Dimitrov had a chance to level with his first break point, but on deuce, his strings burst, and Murray took back control, 4-2, before pummelling the Bulgarian serve again in the seventh.

Dimitrov fought off two more break points and a multitude of deuces to stay in touch, and seemed to be regaining his form with a love hold courtesy of a delightful drop-shot and touch volley winner. But Murray was up to the challenge, and served out the set, 6-4.

It looked as though the second set would be determined by one break, too, and again it came against Dimitrov via a couple of cracking returns of serve from Murray. A timely ace, and the Briton held for 4-2.

But that was not the end of the story, for Dimitrov drew gasps from the vocal Beijing crowd with a mid-court tweener. He held for 4-5, and went on a tear of two love games for 6-5 after Murray threw in an uncharacteristically loose service game.

So it would go to a tie-breaker—and the true metal of Murray shone through. After taking the opening point against serve, he never lost the lead, winning the title, 7-6(2), after almost two hours of pulsating tennis.

And it brought up another milestone in Murray’s outstanding 2016. This was his 60th match-win of the year, the tour leader, and his 40th title. Only three other active players have won so many: Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer. Not bad company then—since they are also the only active players to have experienced the rarefied atmosphere of the No1 ranking.

Perhaps Murray will join them before long, though it would take a mammoth effort to do so this season. He is now 1,555 points behind Djokovic with two Masters and another 500 tournament on his schedule, not to mention the big points on offer at the World Tour Finals.

The form and fitness of both top men will be on show in Shanghai, though of course Murray still has to board his train for the journey from Beijing, while Djokovic has already been practising in Shanghai.

For Dimitrov, the coming week is even harder, though he will be spurred on by his No15 place in the Race—No14 in practice. But unseeded in Shanghai, he enjoys no bye in the first round. So come Tuesday, he plays No14 seed Richard Gasquet, followed by either Vasek Pospisil or Ivo Karlovic, before Djokovic—all just to try and reach the quarters. The World Tour Finals, then, look like a vanishing prospect for the Bulgarian—for this year at least.

Race to the ATP World Tour Finals in London

Remaining tournaments
w/b 9 October: Shanghai Masters
w/b 17 October: 250s in Stockholm, Antwerp, Moscow
w/b 24 October: 500s in Basel and Vienna
w/b 31 October; Paris Masters

Qualified
1 Novak Djokovic
2 Andy Murray
3 Stan Wawrinka
4 Milos Raonic

Chasing pack
5 Kei Nishikori [missing Shanghai]
6 Gael Monfils
7 Rafael Nadal
8 Dominic Thiem [missing Shanghai]

9 Tomas Berdych
10 Marin Cilic
11 David Goffin
12 Nick Kyrgios
[Roger Federer not playing]
13 Lucas Pouille
14 Grigor Dimitrov
15 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
16 Roberto Bautista Agut
17 Pablo Cuevas
18 David Ferrer
19 Richard Gasquet
20 Alexander Zverev

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