Alix Ramsay: Murray sets out his stall for new year

HE HAS a new place in the world order as the man to beat as the new season begins; he has a new management team who have plans to make him richer than his wildest dreams but, deep down, he is still the same old Andy Murray.

The Scot has picked up in the new year where he left off at the end of 2008 by winning the Capitala World Championships in Abu Dhabi, beating Rafael Nadal 6-4, 5-7, 6-3 yesterday and pocketing the 170,000 winner's cheque.

Coming on the back of Friday's three-set victory over Roger Federer, it gave Murray the perfect start to the season. He had never beaten the world's top two men in the same event before but after the way he dealt with whatever challenge was laid in his path, it will certainly not be the last time.

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Given that no-one has played competitively for seven weeks, the final was a remarkable display from the very best in the world.

To put yesterday's match into context, it was just an exhibition event but, then again, neither Murray nor Nadal goes in much for hit-and-giggle tennis. Unlike the usual money-led junkets, this one featured three of the world's top four and with the Australian Open just a couple of weeks away, no-one wanted to show any hint of weakness. Where at the Albert Hall, the old dears indulge their egos and their fantasies with some pre-arranged antics (three tantrums, two trick shots and a giggle with the umpire is usually enough to claim a decent appearance fee), all the boys in Abu Dhabi meant business.

As he took over Federer's No.1 ranking last year, Nadal had warned that he could not hope to keep his place for long. Fully expecting the Swiss to come out with all guns blazing as the new season begins in order to regain his crown as the best in the world, Nadal is ready for the attack from Federer. What he does not want is the likes of Murray to think he has a chance of upsetting the balance of power at the top and, as a result, any match against the Scot matters and must be won.

For Murray, too, his new position as a real contender for the major honours in 2009 means that any chance to show the world's best that he can beat them on any stage and on any day must be taken. This was a chance to lay down a marker or two before the tour moves on to Melbourne and the Australian Open. Murray knows that he is on the verge of claiming a grand slam title and that is why he was willing to work himself to standstill in Florida over the Christmas break.

"I worked really hard in November and December to give myself the best chance at the Australian Open," he said. "To win a grand slam – that's really the only goal I've got left. I'm tired now but obviously you are going to feel it a bit in the first week of the season when you haven't played for a while. It was a tough match and he made me do a lot of running, but I thought it was a great match."

Nadal agreed and, taking his defeat with a smile, pointed out the obvious. "I played a very good match," he said, "and Andy played a little bit better. He has good chances for winning in Australia."

While the final was played in fine spirit – even if Murray had to bite his lip and wait patiently while the local dignitaries meandered into the royal box midway through a game in the second set – the longer it went on, the more it seemed to mean to the Scot. And the more it seemed to mean to Nadal.

By the start of the third set, Murray looked as if he was hanging on for dear life while Nadal looked as if he wanted to cause the Scot some serious physical damage.

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For a set, Murray had flummoxed Nadal with his deceptive mix of power and finesse. Then, in the second set, as Nadal upped the ante, the Scot had the temerity to take a 3-2 lead only to have his advantage wiped out in the very next game. Suddenly the Spaniard was looking the stronger man while Murray's first serve deserted him and his frustrations mounted. But then, in the middle of the third set, both men were at their battling and, at times, flamboyant, best.

The power, the running, the shot-making and the improvisation on both sides of the net had the 5,000 strong crowd on their feet after every point as the match hinged on the seventh game of that final set. Nadal had three game points but the Scot had two break points and as Murray forced the final error from Nadal, he had his nose in front and the result was virtually assured.

They will have it all to do again this coming week as Murray, Nadal and Federer – the forgotten man of the weekend – move to Qatar and the Doha Open where Murray will be defending his title. From there it is on to Melbourne and Murray's first tilt at a major trophy this year.

On the evidence of yesterday, if this is Murray warming up for the new season, 2009 promises to be a belter.