Does Andy Murray's lack of top 5 wins make his No. 1 title less credible?
Murray's win over Kei Nishikori was the first time in 6 months he beat a top-5 player.
World No. 1 Andy Murray ascended to the World No. 1 title this year after what can be argued are decades of hard work. Having held the World No. 2 title over 7 years, Murray wrested the crown from the top-ranked Novak Djokovic earlier this month after excelling at the Paris-Bercy ATP Masters event.
But in a perhaps unexpected twist, that win over Nishikori yesterday was Andy Murray’s first win against a top-5 player
Djokovic saw an early exit at the event courtesy an aggressive Marin Cilic at the Paris Masters, opening the door for Andy Murray to take World No. 1; Murray won the tournament and the title, and although he had by then already qualified for the ATP World Tour Finals, moved up from second seed to first.
Murray’s early 2016 season
To say that Murray has not been consistent this year would be unfair; he has made the finals of three of four Grand Slams – barring the US Open where, incidentally, it was Nishikori who arrested his development, and succeeded on every surface. After a strong early start to the year at the Australian Open, where he made his fifth final this year, the Scot had a bit of a slump in the hardcourt season, with losses to the lower-ranked Federico Delbonis and Grigor Dimitrov.
Murray, however, welcomed daughter Sophia with wife Kim Sears during this time, so it would perhaps be unfair to ascribe losses in that period to Murray's form.
The slow clay season – and the faster wins
His clay court form picked up significantly, with Murray making the finals at the Madrid Masters before losing the title to Novak Djokovic; it was a result of this that the Scot dropped to World No. 3, but chasing up the Madrid loss with a win at the Italian Open, Murray shot back to World No. 2.
At this time, Murray was still consistently playing Top-5 players, beating Stan Wawrinka among others to reach the finals of the French Open, where he lost to Novak Djokovic.
Since then, the Scot brought Czech ace Ivan Lendl back onto his team – a trick that did wonders for his game; Murray would win his second title at Wimbledon, and in doing so a third Grand Slam. But he beat Canada’s Milos Raonic in that final, with Raonic ranked 6th.
Since then, the 29-year-old has not played – or beat – a top-5 player in a final, and his USA run was less than stellar, with Murray losing to Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori. He has had lower-ranked opponents than him since, and many of his title wins have seen Novak Djokovic upset by other players as Murray reached the final.
But does that imply Murray’s top rank was not deserved? No.
Silently working at overcoming Djokovic’s lead
The Scot has chipped away at an 8,000 point lead, with Djokovic’s flagging form also helping him. That is not to say that Murray defeated bad players; he took wins this season over the seasoned Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, an aggressive and consistent Marin Cilic and French wonderkid Lucas Pouille.
Pouille, who was voted the ATP’s Most Improved Player this year, dumped Rafael Nadal from the US Open in what many spectators and pundits described as a spectacular match; in his win over Pouille this year at the Paris-Bercy Masters, Murray lost only three games to his younger counterpart.
Murray has also this season had wins – key at the finals of the Olympics – against former US Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro. The tall Argentine, who was voted the ATP’s Comeback Player of the Year, has been in top form after recovering from what earlier looked to be career-threatening injuries; it is widely believed that should he continue in his current form, Del Potro, who has climbed over 100 rankings since his comeback, should be able to return to the top 10.
Also, a number of losses on the Tour could easily have meant that Murray may have dropped down the rankings – as he did earlier in the clay court season, but the Scot has famously been one of the few players – and the only player in the Top 5 not to have struggled with injury this season – no mean feat.
Why he deserves it
Not only has he played a consistently high level of tennis year-round, strategically structured tournaments so as to effectively manage strain on his body and time around becoming a first-time parent, both commendable given that the level of tennis he churns out tournament after tournament implies he focuses heavily on fitness.
In this event, perhaps it would be prudent to look at Murray’s Elo rating. Named for physics professor Arpad Elo, who devised the system, it factors in the relative skill of players in individual vs. individual matches. Although most commonly used in chess, Elo ratings are also applied to tennis.
Here, they apply not to surface, or to the depth a competitor reaches in the tournament, but the relative skills of the players they have beat; as of the 16th of November, 2016, it is still Novak Djokovic who leads the Elo ratings, with 2514 points to Murray’s 2406. Statistically, a 100 point lead means that the leading player has a 64% chance of winning – meaning that in any match between Djokovic and Murray, Djokovic would by far be the statistic favourite to win.
That said, Elo ratings do not account for recent form, injury or other factors that could affect a career, and there is no statistically consistent way to reconcile those numbers with the fact that Murray’s physical and mental form have been superior to that of Djokovic.
Perhaps Djokovic has beat ‘better’ players this year, and perhaps it is Djokovic who will go down in tennis history as one of the best, and an extraordinary talent, it is Andy Murray whose consistency and hard work have been duly rewarded – giving him an absolutely fair World No. 1.