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Murray eyes top ranking after victory in Shanghai

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SHANGHAI — Andy Murray’s season is turning out even better than he expected: He’s won a second Wimbledon title and a second Olympic gold medal, and reached the finals at the Australian Open and French Open.

And on Sunday, he clinched his sixth title of the year with a 7-6 (1), 6-1 victory over Roberto Bautista Agut at the Shanghai Masters, matching his season-high total from 2009.

Now the Scot has his eyes set on yet another prize: the No. 1 ranking. It may be difficult to catch Novak Djokovic this year, but Murray is closing in on his rival.

“I will try to finish this year as strong as I can. And next year if the opportunity is there to reach No. 1, then I want to try and take it,” Murray said. “It’s going to be a tough thing to achieve that. I’m aware of that.”

“But I believe I can get there. … These last few months have proved that to me.”

With Roger Federer injured, Rafael Nadal still trying to regain his confidence and Djokovic dealing with the effects of an exhausting season, Murray has established himself as the dominant force in the game as the year winds down.

He credits the return of Ivan Lendl to his coaching team, coupled with his victory at Wimbledon after several tough losses in slam finals, for giving him the belief he could compete for major championships again.

“It helped motivate me,” he said. “Really since the French Open, (I’ve) played the best three months of tennis of my career.”

He hasn’t let up in the post-U.S. Open final stretch of the season, either. Since arriving in China two weeks ago, he hasn’t lost a set in 10 matches and has captured back-to-back titles at the China Open and Shanghai Masters.

Murray’s win on Sunday was also his tour-best 65th of the season and gave him his 41st career title, tying Stefan Edberg for 15th place on the all-time list.

Bautista Agut made it hard for him at the start, however. The Spaniard, equally at home on hard courts as he is on clay, pinned Murray to the back of the court with powerful forehands and sharp angles for much of the first set, keeping the second-seeded Scot on the defensive and forcing him to make errors.

Serving for the set at 5-4, Murray appeared distracted by movement in the crowd and wasted three set points before Bautista Agut broke back to level the match. Murray settled down in the tiebreaker, however, and closed out the second set in just 31 minutes.

He had 16 unforced errors in the opening set, but only three after that.

While Murray still has a couple of tournaments left this year, including the ATP Tour Finals in London, he’s already looking forward to next season and his next major challenge of overtaking Djokovic for the No. 1 ranking, which the Serb has held since July 2014.

The timing couldn’t be better.

Djokovic has been off his game since completing his career Grand Slam with a victory at the French Open earlier this season and has talked in recent weeks about putting less pressure on himself to win more slams and hold onto the top ranking.

Bautista Agut said he thinks the way Murray is playing, it’s only a matter of time.

“Andy is doing everything to get Novak,” he said. “I can see it in his eyes. He’s really focused on getting No. 1.”

French Open 2017: 30 is the new 25 in men’s tennis right now

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PARIS — The very top of men’s tennis has never been this old.

For the first time in the history of the ATP computer rankings, which date to the early 1970s, the men sitting at Nos. 1-5 are all 30 or older, the latest sign that the current crop of stars has enviable staying power.

It’s also the latest reason to wonder when a new face will emerge among the elite, because there eventually will come a point – yes, there really will – when the group that was once known as the Big 3, then came to be called the Big 4, and now is considered by some to be a Big 5, is no longer running the sport.

With the French Open starting Sunday, No. 1 Andy Murray, No. 2 Novak Djokovic, No. 3 Stan Wawrinka and No. 4 Rafael Nadal (No. 5 Roger Federer is skipping Paris) all have designs on another major trophy. But could someone such as Alexander Zverev, who just turned 20 last month, or the supremely talented – and supremely enigmatic – Nick Kyrgios, 22, or Dominic Thiem, 23, make a breakthrough for the up-and-coming kids?

“We’re probably coming to the end of one of the greatest eras of tennis that, certainly, I’ve ever seen,” ATP Executive Chairman and President Chris Kermode said, “and what we need to do as a sport is look to the next generation of players.”

Federer is 35, Wawrinka is 32, Nadal turns 31 on June 3, and Djokovic and Murray turned 30 this month. That quintet has won 46 of the last 48 Grand Slam titles, a dozen-year stretch of dominance.

Zverev’s victory over Djokovic in the Italian Open final last weekend might have symbolized coming change. Zverev was the first man born in the 1990s to win a Masters 1000 title, the youngest champ since Djokovic about a decade ago.

That title also pushed Zverev into the top 10, making him the youngest member since Juan Martin del Potro in 2008.

“It’s nice … for the tour, as well, to have a few younger guys, few younger girls, as well, to be able to play at the top,” said Zverev, who is German. “As I said many times, unfortunately for tennis and unfortunately for the spectators, the top four cannot play forever. So it’s good that younger players are starting to get through.”

So then the question becomes: Why has it taken so long?

Why does someone such as former player and coach Brad Gilbert, now an ESPN commentator, say, “Today’s 30 is like 25 used to be,” as he did this week? Why have these 30-somethings had such staying power? And why is it taking so long for newcomers to make a mark?

There is a similar situation in women’s tennis, where Serena Williams has kept winning Grand Slam titles into her 30s and is the oldest No. 1 in WTA history. Current No. 1 Angelique Kerber was the oldest woman to make her debut at that spot.

“Tennis has changed in the last 15 years … since they slowed down surfaces and there is not much difference in speeds of the surfaces,” said Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams’ coach. “You rarely have many easy shots now. You have to work the points much more, and one of the consequences is you need to be physically much better and able to play long rallies.”

He points out that when Wimbledon’s grass courts, for example, used to play much faster than they do now, a player could succeed there hitting aces by the dozen and going for one winner after another, because “you don’t need the same maturity and understanding of tactics” that are required today.

Gilbert points to Andre Agassi – a man he used to coach, and who is assisting Djokovic during this French Open – as an inspiration to the current old-timers still in charge.

“It used to be, you turned 30, you were completely on the downside of your career. A lot of these guys can remember Andre making a deep run at 2005 at 35 years old. I think that was the turning point in belief, that guys could play a lot longer,” Gilbert said. “You’re seeing Tom Brady be the best quarterback in all of football, maybe ever, and he’s approaching 40, which is dinosaur for a quarterback, but not anymore. Athletes are pushing the envelope all year round. There’s no offseason. Offseason is for more training, diet, technology.”

Nadal leads Djokovic, Murray, Thiem on French Open odds

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The overarching presence of Rafael Nadal, who has won a record nine times at Roland Garros, has inflated prices on the other top men at the French Open.

Nadal is listed as a better than even money -125 favorite on the French Open men’s champion board at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. The Spaniard has won 17 of 18 matches on clay this year and will not have to worry about longtime nemesis Roger Federer, who’s saving himself for the grass and hard courts. The event begins in Paris on Sunday.

While Nadal is undoubtedly the most consistent clay-court player in the world, many threats loom. Novak Djokovic (+300) might be ready to come out of his lull now that he has swapped out his support staff, bringing on Andre Agassi as a personal coach. Nadal and Djokovic are on the same side of the draw, so either would benefit if the other falls prey to an upset.

Dominic Thiem (+900) could also be undervalued, given that he defeated Nadal in the Italian Open, one of the tune-ups for the French.

Top seed Andy Murray (+900) has not won an event on clay this season and his place on the tennis betting lines might reflect the notion that some bettors will always go for a big name with a track record of winning Grand Slams. In terms of someone who is coming into the tournament playing well, Stan Wawrinka (+1000) has had an impressive run at the Geneva Open after having so-so output for most of the clay-court season. Wawrinka is also a recent champion, having won in 2015.

It seems like it is just a matter of when 20-year-old Alexander Zverev (+1400) will win his first Grand Slam singles title. Zverev turned heads when he extended Nadal to five sets in a third-round defeat at the Australian Open in January, and he defeated Djokovic in the Italian Open final to become the youngest player in 10 years to win an ATP Masters event.

As far as the women’s champion board goes, Simona Halep (+450) has top odds but is battling an ankle injury. World No. 1 Angelique Kerber (+1600) has also been inconsistent throughout the season. Young Ukrainian Elina Svitolina (+700) is an intriguing possibility by virtue of her results (four singles titles already in 2017) and her strong return game, since the soft clay at Roland Garros dictates having longer rallies.

Garbine Muguruza (+900) is the defending champion, but it’s a little glaring that she has not reached a Grand Slam semifinal in three tries since that 2016 breakthrough.