SHANGHAI: Andy Murray has never been the most fashionable member of tennis’s ‘Big Four’, but he finally looks the part as he zeroes in on the world number one spot.
Winning back-to-back titles in China without dropping a set tells its own story, and underlines the consensus that Murray is currently the world’s best player.
The 29-year-old swept past Roberto Bautista to win his third Shanghai Masters title on Sunday, lifting his sixth trophy in what has been his best season yet.
It could get better for Murray, who can overtake Novak Djokovic at the top of the rankings with wins in Vienna and Paris, provided the Serb doesn’t reach the Paris final.
It hasn’t done Murray any harm that Djokovic has suffered a sudden and perplexing dip in form, and that Roger Federer is sidelined by injury.
Rafael Nadal is also a fading force but Murray would be a deserving successor as the last of the four, who have 46 Grand Slam titles between them, to reach number one.
What’s more, Murray, often marked out for his anguished demeanour on court, is growing into the role of eminent tour-leader in the mould of Djokovic and Federer before him.
The one-time gawky kid still berates himself during matches but he is far more comfortable with the media, giving fulsome and intelligent answers to all questions.
He is also prepared to defend and mentor younger players such as the wayward Nick Kyrgios, whose latest on-court meltdown resulted in a fine in Shanghai.
Physically, too, Murray is at his peak, with supreme fitness and acceleration that can shift his now-hulking frame around the court at frightening speeds.
He has reached three Slam finals this year, winning his second Wimbledon title and also becoming the first man to successfully defend Olympic singles gold.
Murray hired British coach Jamie Delgado this year and Ivan Lendl’s return to his team in June was quickly followed by victory at Wimbledon. He hasn’t looked back since.
“Winning Wimbledon was really a big boost to my confidence after I had had quite a few tough losses in the Slams the last few years,” he said.
“That kind of gave me a lot more belief in myself that I could win the major competitions again. It helped motivate me.
“I have obviously quite a different team this year with Ivan and Jamie. Since the French Open, I’ve played the best three months of tennis of my career.”
Obstacles remain and Murray is wary of a return to form by Djokovic, conservatively predicting that February or March represent his best chance of reaching number one.
“I will try and finish this year as strong as I can. And next year if the opportunity is there to reach number one, then I want to try and take it,” he said.
“But it’s not going to be easy because Novak plays great tennis indoors, and also his record at the beginning of the year is phenomenal in Australia and Indian Wells, Miami.
“It’s going to be a tough thing to achieve that. I’m aware of that. I’m close-ish right now, but it’s going to be really tough still.”
It has been some journey for Murray, who survived the 1996 Dunblane school massacre when he was eight and moved to Spain to further his tennis career when he was 15.
But if he keeps his current trajectory, it won’t be long before he becomes Britain’s first world number one under the ATP’s computerised rankings, which were introduced in 1973.
“I have never had success like I have had the last few months in my career, so to keep that going, I’m aware it’s going to be a difficult thing to do,” he warned.
“I need to keep myself motivated and be smart with my schedule and my time off, as well. But I believe I can get there. I definitely believe I can get there.
“These last few months have proved that to me.”