LONDON -- It was difficult to know what to expect when Andy Murray took to the bright blue courts at the O2 Arena to kick off the singles competition at the ATP World Tour Finals. This was, of course, his first match in London since he backed up gold at the Olympics with his first Slam title at the U.S. Open a few weeks later. He's come back to London as Murray the Ghostbuster, the man who finally let Fred Perry -- the last British man to win a Slam in 1936 -- to rest in peace and not be marched out every time Murray took the court.
After a summer that saw the raucous Olympic crowds in London, you would think that the feel-good ethos of being loud and proud for your hometown athletes would rub off on the British tennis public. This was the guy they spent the summer cheering for -- they were cheering for him, right? -- and this was their chance to welcome him home. But the crowd, though vocal, was no louder than it was last year as Murray emerged from the smoky tunnel to polite applause. The relatively lukewarm response even surprised his first round opponent, Tomas Berdych.
"I was maybe expecting more. But as I said yesterday, you know, the crowd here is just great. It's just a great showdown of the tennis."
Regardless of whether the roar broke any decibel meters, the reception clearly meant a lot to Murray. He seemed to stifle a shy grin as he bowed his head and waved to the crowd. The support of the British public that he says buoyed his success after Wimbledon still resonated.
"The noise and the atmosphere at the beginning of the match was great," Murray said. "Like I say, at this stage of the year, that does help to give you a little boost, you know, rather than coming out playing flat."
Murray came firing out of the gate and looked to be the man with the clearer purpose. Still, there would be no sitting back and trying to out-rally Berdych from the baseline. Murray took the initiative early, stepping into his forehand and it was the big-hitting Berdych who was content pushing balls back. But his ability to get deep into Berdych's service games were for naught. Murray had seven break points in the first set and couldn't convert a single one, and as his frustration mounted, his focus waned and Berdych took the first set 6-3.
But Murray flipped the script in the second set. This time he was the one under immediate pressure and forced to save break points, which he did. Berdych would go 0 for 3 on break points in the second set and Murray tightened up his game, storming back to take the second set 6-3 and then cruising in the third set to win 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.
As great as his last few months have been, Murray needs a strong showing here in London. For all the talk of Murray now inhabiting that elite space alongside Novak, Roger and Rafa thanks to his New York triumph, Murray is still the weak link of that Fab Four because he hasn't proven reliable outside of the Slams this year. This is a guy who can beat Roger Federer on grass one week and lose to Jeremy Chardy or Milos Raonic the next. It could be that Murray has somehow evolved solely into a big stage player, which isn't a bad thing. But I'm pretty playing the World Tour Finals in your hometown after your maiden Slam title counts as a big stage. Failure to get out of the group stage would be disappointing.
Murray's win sets up a possible second round match against Djokovic on Wednesday. They've played some memorable matches this year, but Murray says the only thing he knows for sure about their matchups is that they're going to hurt. A lot.
"Both of us are good retrievers, so often the points will go on a lot," Murray said. Sometimes you maybe feel like you need to win that point two or three times, which is tough and can b a bit tiring. But, I mean, we've played each other enough to know what to expect. We do practice with eaach other quite a lot too. But it's never quite the same as the matches, that's for sure."
A few other thoughts on the World Tour Finals:
Group A is the one to watch: With three of the four semifinalists of the last Slam of the season drawn together, each round-robin match in this group is a must-watch. You have to like Novak's chances to get out of this group given his consistency. That said, his curious loss to Sam Querrey last week in Paris and having his father (who is recuperating in a hospital in Serbia after suffering an acute respiratory illness) on his mind leaves enough room for doubt.
Player of the Year on the line: The top ranking may be off the table, but bragging rights for the ATP's unofficial Player of the Year are still very much in play. We've already seen it on the women's side, with Victoria Azarenka finishing at No. 1 but Serena Williams racking up the titles and wins that matter and sitting at No. 3. If Djokovic can come through to win his first Tour Final since 2008, he'll end his season with the perfect coda: a Slam title and five Tour titles to go with it. For Federer, a win would create a Serena-like debate, as he would own a Slam title, Olympic silver medal, and seven titles on the year, but be ranked behind Djokovic. As for Murray, could his first World Tour Finals title put him in the PoY conversation? Sure, but it depends on who he beats to do it. Knock off Djokovic (possibly twice) and Federer, and it's not a ludicrous debate. Spoiler alert: No shocker here: My picks for the two men who could spoil the dominant run of the top guys at this event are Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro. Both love the indoors and they have the power to hit through Djokovic, Federer and Murray. Then there's last year's finalist, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who's just hired a new coach in Roger Rasheed and is always capable of electric stuff with a crowd behind him. He'll be a fan favorite in any match not involving Mr. Murray, but his 1-3 career record against Berdych might spell his doom in group play.