LONDON -- In January, Novak Djokovic looked poised for another No. 1 season after winning his third consecutive Australian Open title. But if ever tennis needed a reminder about how quickly a year can change, Rafael Nadal returned in February and wrenched back every headline, reclaiming control of a tour that was ruled by the other three members of the Big Four in his absence.
Now, as the tour turns to the grass and then hard courts in the second half of the season, the pressure shifts to Andy Murray and, in the short term, Roger Federer.
Murray accumulated 5,400 points (or 65 percent of his current total of 8,310) during the second half last year, a triumphant run that saw him make his first Wimbledon final, win Olympic gold and the U.S. Open and qualify for the semifinals of the year-end ATP World Tour Finals. From Wimbledon through the U.S. Open, Murray went 21-2 and defeated Federer in the Olympic final and Djokovic in the U.S. Open final.
He did all this in the absence of Nadal, who ended his 2012 season after a second-round loss at Wimbledon because of a knee injury. Murray is already at a slight disadvantage in the rankings because of the Olympics, which earned him a one-off 750 points that he can't defend this year. Those points will drop off Aug. 5.
Murray is ranked No. 2. He's fourth in the Race to London, a tally that only takes into account the number of points earned in the current season. Despite missing the Australian Open, Nadal has already qualified for the ATP World Tour Finals (the first singles player to do so), leading the table with 7,000 points. He's followed by Djokovic at 5,030 and David Ferrer at 4,080. Murray trails them by a wide margin, with 2,910 points.
It's worth noting that the defending Wimbledon champion, Federer, is in seventh, with 2,220 points. It's been a disappointing first half for Federer, who lost to Murray in the Australian Open semifinals and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the French Open quarterfinals last week. He has an opportunity to get things right at Wimbledon, on the 10th anniversary of winning the first major title of his career there.
Murray has actually had a better first half of the season than last year, despite missing the French Open. He comes into this week's Aegon Championships in London with 360 more points than he had at this time last year, a credit to his ability to go a step further at the Australian Open (where he beat Federer to make the final) and a much better U.S. hard-court season (where he reached the quarterfinals in Indian Wells, his best result there since 2010, and won Miami). A lower-back injury interrupted his clay season and forced him to decide between the French Open or recovery. Murray chose the latter, withdrawing five days before play began in Paris, though to say it was a "choice" would be a misnomer.
"I would have much rather have been playing the French Open," Murray said Thursday after his 6-2, 6-2 win over Marinko Matosevic in the third round at Queen's Club, where the Scot is a two-time champion. "You have to look at the positives sometimes, and, yeah, the one positive is I got to spend more time on the grass to prepare for here. But if I had to make that decision 50 times, I would have made the same decision. But I would way rather have been at the French Open than being at home for two weeks."
So far, Murray's back has held up through the typically soggy start-and-stop of the British grass season. His opening match Wednesday, against Nicolas Mahut, who knocked him out at the same stage last year, was halted a number of times because of rain and eventually suspended early in the second set. On Thursday, Murray had to pull double duty, finishing off Mahut in the early afternoon and then coming back three-and-a-half hours later to play his third-rounder against Matosevic.
"I woke up this morning with no real stiffness," Murray said.
Getting some match play in here will surely help his confidence going into Wimbledon, where he'll be a favorite with Djokovic, Nadal and Federer. Then again, Murray lost his opening match at Queen's last year and went on to have his best Wimbledon. That's Murray for you. Every time you think he'll turn right, he goes left. Regardless of his lead-up results, Murray can draw on last summer's success on the quintessentially British surface when he went 13-1 through Wimbledon and the Olympics, which were held at the All England Club.
"I probably feel a bit more confident coming into this grass-court season because of how I played on it last year," he said. "I think because I managed to win some big matches and play well on the grass last year, I know what I did well and what I need to keep doing." Tennis players litter Forbes 100