The Truth Behind How Murray Became #1

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(Reuters)

Andy Murray will become the new world number one on Monday. He’ll replace Novak Djokovic as the top ranked player in the world. The circumstances in which this has occurred say Murray isn’t truly the best player in the world though. Murray has gotten to number on because of injuries to other top players, luck, and taking advantage of ranking system. He hasn’t had to prove himself like the player he’s replacing atop the rankings.

Novak Djokovic couldn’t stop winning in 2011. He defeated the number one player coming into the year, Rafael Nadal, six times in 2011. He never lost to him. Even after he’d defeated Nadal four times in a row, people still doubted he was the best. When Nole beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Wimbledon semifinals, he replaced Nadal as the new number one player in the world. Then he went on to beat Nadal in the final for the fifth time of the year. Nole got to number one when the previous number one, Nadal, was still at the peak of his powers, as every win against him was in a final. Nole went right through Nadal to become the best. That’s not how Murray’s done it though.

The reality of Murray becoming number one is the ATP is experiencing a low point in the sport. Roger Federer missed most of the 2016 season with a knee injury. Djokovic experienced some motivation issues after winning Roland Garros and has been plagued with arm injuries since. The door was open and Murray took advantage.

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Roger Federer hasn’t lost to Andy Murray since the Australian Open in 2013. Federer’s won their last five meetings. The last four of those were in straight sets. Federer has won the last ten sets against Murray. If Federer wasn’t injured for most of the year, Murray would’ve had to play him and, given their recent head to head, would lose to him most likely.

Novak Djokovic is 13-2 against Andy Murray since Wimbledon 2013. This includes 3-1 in 2016. The lone loss came in Rome when Nole had to play Nadal and Nishikori leading into the final, while Murray faced Goffin and Pouille in the same rounds. Nole also got the second semifinal match, meaning he got much less rest than Murray before the final. The circumstances were heavily in favor of Murray for that match. They’d meet a few weeks later in the Roland Garros final and Nole beat Murray. That’s the last time they played.

One of the main reasons Murray has become the top player is because of injuries to Djokovic and Federer. Murray’s head to head against the two since Wimbledon 2013 is 2-18. If Nole was questioned in 2011 about being the best player in the world after beating Nadal four straight times, Murray should be getting even more questions. Nole had to go right through Nadal. Murray hasn’t had to go through the two players he’s had the most struggles against recently, Djokovic or Federer.

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Murray has gotten to number one by winning tournaments in which he didn’t have to face the top players in the game. He’s won four tournaments this year without facing a single top ten player, including two Masters 1000’s (Nole has the record for most Masters 1000’s titles and has only won one without facing a top ten player). Murray’s won three other tournaments only having to face one top ten opponent. The only tournament he’s won in which he defeated multiple top ten players was Wimbledon. In comparison, Nole hasn’t won a single title in 2016 when he didn’t have to face multiple top ten opponents. He’s won six tournaments in 2016 facing two top ten players. He won the Australian Open facing three top ten players. Nole has had to beat top opposition for every title he’s won in 2016. Murray cannot say the same.

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Murray is 11-5 in 2016 against top 10 players. Nole is 18-3. Murray has played thirteen more matches overall in 2016, but five less against top ten players. Nole is 7-2 against top five players. Murray is 3-4. Nole has had to play top opposition more often and wins against it more often.

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To illustrate further how draws have been more favorable to Murray, look at the above tables. I’d like to stress that this is based solely on projected draws. Nole has faced his projected seed 25 times, compared to 22 times for Murray. Notice how Nole faces the higher seeds more often. Nole faced his projected 1-8 seeds 16 times, compared to 12 times for Murray. Now look at the table on the right. This shows projected seeds losing before Nole or Murray could meet. Murray’s projected seeds lost 33 times, whereas Nole’s lost 22 times. Notice how the top seeds lost more often for Murray than Nole (26-15). I will note that in the 1-2 seeds, Nole is 4 of Murray’s 8 and Murray is 3 of Nole’s 4.

As the year went on, it felt like almost every week Murray got easier draws than Nole. Going through the draws, you can see how draws opened up more for Murray than Nole. It’s harder to win when you face the best and most consistent players in the world week in and week out. You can’t have a bad day as often. You always need to be at your best. Nole had to beat top opposition more often and didn’t get as much luck as Murray.

People say you can only beat the players you face. That is true. You cannot pick your draw. Doesn’t it seem unbelievable though that Nole has had to win all of his titles by beating multiple top players, whereas Murray has only had to do that once? Doesn’t it seem unbelievable Murray’s projected seeds lost 11 more times overall than Nole’s? It seems unprecedented. It has to even out at some point, right? Well that didn’t happen. It didn’t even out. That’s why it’s relevant. Murray has gotten easier draws than Nole has. The only way to describe it is luck of the draw.

Now let’s look at the ranking breakdown. This is what they’ll look like on Monday, November 7th.

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Murray leads by 405 points. As you can see, Nole has earned more points in the biggest events, majors and Masters 1,000’s. The biggest difference is the 500 series. Murray has won three 500 level titles for 1,500 points. Nole only played in one and had to retire with an eye infection. That gap is what mathematically made Murray #1. I give credit to Murray for this. The ranking system is set up to allow six non-elite tournaments to be apart of the ranking. Murray took advantage of this by playing them more often. I’ve thought in the past this could come back to bite Nole and now it has.

One thing I’d like to point out is Nole had to beat two top ten players to win his 250 title in Doha. Murray only faced one top ten player in the three 500 level titles he won.

In 2013, Nole did all he could to end the year as the top player. He won every event after the US Open. He beat the new number one player, Nadal, twice down the stretch. He didn’t add any other tournaments to try to be number one. He played what he always played. Murray didn’t do the same this year. He didn’t play Beijing and Vienna last year. (I will say that he probably would’ve played at least one of those last year if it weren’t for his country being in the Davis Cup final). He added them for the sole purpose of trying to be number one. Again, I give him credit for doing that. He’d never been number one and did everything he could to do it. That’s smart. It feels a bit crooked though when you compare it to Nole not picking up tournaments in 2013.

This could be a lengthy stay for Murray at number one. Well, maybe not, he could lose it in two weeks. But what I’m getting to is most of Nole’s points are at the beginning of the year. Murray’s are at the end. He won’t be able to gain like Murray will early next year. Murray didn’t play after the Australian Open due to the birth of his first baby. He usually plays before Indian Wells, but he didn’t this year to spend time with his new baby. Next year he’ll probably add a tournament between Australia and Indian Wells. Also, he lost in his second match in Indian Wells and Miami. Nole won those two events. Those will be very important next year for #1. Murray can gain a lot. Nole can lose a lot.

The biggest question though is if Nole can get out of the current funk he’s in. How long will his current state of form and mental frailties continue? I think Nole has gotten better and better since the US Open, but it’s still not the same Nole we were accustomed to in 2015 and early 2016. If Nole can get back to where he was before the injuries, he will go back to dominating the sport. He’s still 29. Players have been winning in their thirties lately. People have said he could be the player that breaks that door wide open of winning in their thirties because of his continued devotion to his health and stretching. We’ll have to wait and see, but I’m willing to give Nole some time to find his health and form again. He was too good for us not to.

Year end #1 will be on the line in London. No matter what happens, Murray cannot negate anything I’ve said about how he got to #1. If he were to beat Nole in the tournament, it wouldn’t mean anything. Beating a player one time means nothing given how lopsided the head to head has been lately. You have to do it week in and week out. If Murray beats Nole a few times straight when Nole shows he’s back to form and health, then okay, but until then, Nole will continue to be favored when they play. Just like Nadal was in 2011.

I’ve spent a majority of this article breaking apart how Murray got to #1. I’d like to now acknowledge what it took for him to get there. I respect all it took for him to get there. He separated himself from all the other players. When the opportunity arose, he took advantage. Becoming number one is a big deal. I congratulate him on that. It takes a lot of devotion and training to put yourself in that position. He deserves it.

The purpose of this article wasn’t to lessen Murray’s accomplishments. It was meant to highlight the way in which got there. It’s one thing to be ranked as the number one player in the world. It’s another to actually be the best. We saw how Murray has been much more fortunate with draws than the player he’s replacing atop the rankings. We saw how he’s been unable to beat Djokovic and Federer lately, and when those two got injured, he got to the top. Murray may be ranked number one, but there’s still a lot for him to prove that he is actually the best.

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