Andy Murray continues to 'build confidence' with battling win at DDF Tennis Championships

Former world No 1 displays famous grit to defeat Denis Shapovalov and record just his second win of year

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Andy Murray has never given up belief. Not when he went four Grand Slam finals without winning a title, not when he required a radical hip resurfacing operation to save his career, and not now, during the worst run of his exemplary career.

So, a one-set deficit in the first round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, even amid a dismal start to the season, was never going to register high on Murray’s lengthy list of conquered adversities.

The former world No 1 had looked on course for a fifth first-round exit in his sixth tournament of 2024 when he trailed by a set to Denis Shapovalov and struggled to withstand a barrage from the free-wheeling Canadian. But in typical, grinding Murray style, he refused to buckle and for the first time this season, he came out on top in the clutch moments to secure a 4-6, 7-6, 6-3 victory.

Shapovalov, a former world No 10, is enduring his own tough start to the year as he makes his way back from an injury-hit 2023, but nevertheless this was an important win for Murray in his bid to end his recent rut. This was only his second win of the year but comes a week after his first, in Doha.

“Winning matches is what gives confidence,” the three-time Grand Slam champion said. “A lot of people believe that you can improve your confidence by working hard away from the court. The number one thing in sport that builds confidence is winning matches. That's my belief and what I've experienced.

“There have been some signs of progress the last couple of weeks, I would say. It's obviously not exactly where I'd want it to be, but it's better than where it was.”

Murray’s difficult run, which involved losing his first four matches of the year and saw his ranking slide from 42 to 67, led some critics to make outlandish claims that the two-time Olympic gold medallist could be harming his legacy.

If any reminder was needed in that regard, Monday’s win over Shapovalov was Murray’s 500th on hard courts. Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andre Agassi, and Rafael Nadal are the only other members of this particular club; that is tennis heritage.

“Yeah, that’s not bad,” Murray, 36, said. “Hard courts have been a great surface for me over the years and 500 is a lot of matches [to win], so I’m very proud of that. That list, there’s not many players who have done it so it’s great to get to 500 before I’m done.”

That the 500 milestone was achieved on Monday relied entirely on Murray's powers of perseverance. There was nothing between either player for much of the first set as both served well, but in a sign that Murray's confidence is not quite where it should be, he wobbled at the worst time to hand Shapovalov the break at 5-4, allowing the Canadian to serve out the first set.

A tense second set saw Murray take the initial advantage at 3-1, only for Shapovalov to break straight back and level for 3-3, and as the tension increased so did the errors and self-scolding by both players. Yet, while Murray – one of tennis' great self-critics – was able to compartmentalise his frustrations, Shapovalov appeared to get increasingly affected by his own annoyances.

“How you talk to yourself can influence that a bit,” Murray said. “I've always felt better when I've shown my frustration. The challenge for me is making sure that the frustration doesn't continue through to the next point. When I show my frustration, get it out, and focus on the next point, I feel my best on the court.”

The critical moment then came in the latter part of the tiebreak when Shapovalov had the opportunity to earn a match point at 5-5. But his decision to hammer down a second serve backfired, resulting in a double fault and gifting Murray the chance to win the set and level the match, which he duly took.

The Scot seized that minor momentum swing and carried it into the third set, pouncing on Shapovalov's drop in level to grab the break in the first game. Murray maintained his one-break lead before easing any mounting tension by breaking the Canadian again in the ninth game as he served to stay in the match, sealing the victory in just over two-and-a-half hours.

Murray, the 2017 Dubai champion, next faces the winner of Tuesday's all-French showdown between fifth seed Ugo Humbert and former world No 6 Gael Monfils.

Top seed and defending champion Daniil Medvedev also begins his tournament on Tuesday when he takes on Alexander Shevchenko.

Updated: February 26, 2024, 5:27 PM