London: When Andy Murray steps out on court to face Tomas Berdych in his first match at the ATP World Tour Finals on Monday the expectation he usually shoulders will weigh a little less. The season-ending event will be the London-based Scot's first tournament on home soil after he finally made his major breakthrough by winning the US Open in September, beating Novak Djokovic in an epic final.
The 25-year-old ended 76-years of British hurt by downing Djokovic at Flushing Meadows and he will be guaranteed a raptuous reception at London's O2 Arena, the final stop on another year of dominance for the game's big guns. Djokovic, guaranteed to end the year as world number one for the second time, has been drawn to face Murray in Group A which also features dangerous Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
With Rafa Nadal absent injured, Wimbledon champion Roger Federer heads Group B which also contains David Ferrer, Juan Martin del Potro and Janko Tipsarevic. All eyes will be on Murray though as he aims to complete a magnificent treble, having also taken Olympic gold in London.
"I'm sure it will (be a great reception)," Murray told reporters on Saturday after the draw. "I will have to wait and see what's it's like when it does happen. It will obviously be nice."
With a major to his name, Murray admitted he was slightly more relaxed going into a tournament that in terms of quality is regarded not far below a grand slam.
"For me I feel a little bit more relaxed this year than I have in previous years because I've managed to win the U.S. Open," Murray said. "But there is (still) going to be pressure on me here to play well. The only thing I can guarantee is that I'll give 110 percent on the court and fight as hard as I can to the end of all the matches, and see where that gets me."
Murray, dumped out of the Paris Masters by Polish qualifier Jerzy Janowicz on Thursday, will get another chance to lock horns with Djokovic, his old junior adversary with whom he has contested some ferocious battles in 2012.
Djokovic beat Murray in the semi-finals of the Australian Open in a match lasting close to five hours, before Murray took revenge at the same stage of the London Olympics and then in the remarkable five-set U.S. Open final. The Serb prevailed at the Shanghai Masters last month, but despite the intense nature of their meetings, Murray said they were some way off matching Federer's rivalry with Nadal.
"I'm always motivated when I play the best players in the world, if you're at the top of any sport you want to compete against the best guys, it's the best marker of where your game is at, and I've always enjoyed that challenge," he said. Whether me and Novak would replace anything Roger and Rafa have done, that's a long way off. Some of the matches we've had this year, Australia, the U.S. Open, Shanghai as well, were high quality matches and fun to watch."
The draw has not been kind to Murray with the hard-hitting Berdych his first obstacle. However, Murray disagreed that Group A was tougher than Group B.
"Indoors, Roger's been the best player over the past couple of years," he said of Federer who has won two of the three editions of the year-ender since it came to London in 2009. Indoors, Juan won two tournaments just before Paris. It depends, if everyone plays their best tennis, I don't think one group will be necessarily tougher than the other."
While Murray will have stoney-faced coach Ivan Lendl back in his box after the pair took a break following his U.S. Open triumph, Tsonga, last year's beaten finalist, hopes the recent appointment of Roger Rasheed as his mentor will have the same effect long term.
"In the last couple of months I improved my game a lot alone, but you know I felt like I need something else to beat the top four, so I will try with Roger (Rasheed) as I think he's the right person to do that," the Frenchman said. I'm sure he will push me a lot, give me the extra motivation to practice, to practice more and harder."
He plays Djokovic on Monday, and acknowledged the difficulty of matching last year's effort given the strength of the draw.
"I've played them many times, they know my game maybe better than I know their games because they beat me often, but anyway, it's still sport and I'm sure I will have some opportunities."