MIAMI -- About two hours before the eye-opening men's final here at the Sony Open, Andy Murray was out on stadium court hitting with coach Ivan Lendl.
There were only a few ushers and a dozen or so stray fans watching on this exceedingly bright Sunday morning. Lendl, the eight-time Grand Slam champion, had a keen killer instinct in his day and he was appropriately dressed in all black.
He has successfully infused the once-passive, often listless Murray with some of his legendary competitive fire. Goaded by a smiling Lendl, Murray hit a few forehand rockets directly at his coach, all handled deftly with quick-wristed volleys. Lendl gets paid about $1 million a year for this kind of subtle stuff and he's well worth the money. Last year Murray won the Olympic gold medal at Wimbledon and then his first Grand Slam singles title, at the U.S. Open.
Thus, it was a bit of a surprise when Murray came out in the first set and looked like the young Scotsman circa, say, 2008. His body language was terrible, he made several bad line challenges and was clearly irked when his supply ran out early in the fifth game. On the bright side, he avoided an Easter Brunch bagel in the first set, holding serve at love-5.
In a bruising, brutal conclusion to the North American spring hard-court season, Murray managed to stalk his good friend and frequent practice partner, David Ferrer, hunt him down and, ultimately, beat him 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 (1).
"Both of us were on our last legs," said Murray, who described it as one of the toughest ATP World Tour matches he had ever played. "It was so tough to think out there, it was beyond nerves."
Murray saved a match point to force the tiebreaker with a forehand that was in by a few millimeters. In the 29-year history of this tournament, no men's winner had ever saved a match point. Murray won seven of eight points in that final frame.
We mention this because if you don't subscribe to Tennis Channel, you probably missed it. CBS, in its final broadcast here, elected to leave the match before the tiebreaker to go to its coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament, the South Regional final between Florida and Michigan.
"It's a shame people didn't get to see the end of a pretty exciting match," Murray said. "That's just the way it goes sometimes."
The match ran a draining 2 hours, 44 minutes and featured as many breaks of serve (15) as holds.
"I had my chance in the match point," a dejected Ferrer said later. "The ball, it was really close. I saw out. Anyway, I was more tired than him, and he served to win the match."
It was the second Sony Open title for Murray, who has a condominium in downtown Miami; he also won on his home court here in 2009.
Ferrer, who turns 31 on Tuesday, was trying to win the biggest title in his dozen years as a professional. Few have more heart, but at 5-foot-9, 160 pounds -- giving six inches and nearly 30 pounds to Murray -- he didn't have quite enough power to finish Murray off when he had the chance.
It was an innocuous-looking number -- three digits and a dash -- hidden in the voluminous ATP World Tour notes, but it neatly framed Ferrer's place in men's elite tennis. The spunky Spaniard led the ATP with 76 match wins a year ago and is leading again, by a wide margin. But in the crucible of a championship final, against players ranked among the top five, Ferrer was a stark (and scary) 0-12.
Predictably, Murray came out steaming for the second set. He built a 4-2 lead and seemed to be on the verge of breaking Ferrer, but the Spaniard -- producing some of the match's finest tennis -- escaped. When Murray, still cranky, got into it with chair umpire Cedric Mourier, he sounded a lot like Lendl.
And then he broke Ferrer at 4-all and served out the set.
The third set was a queasy, unsettled affair. The two players went an astounding seven games before one of them managed to hold serve. A tired-looking Murray backhand found the net and Ferrer was leading 4-3, on serve. It felt like he was up a break.
Murray evened it at 4-all and then broke Ferrer again. At 30-40, Ferrer had a semi-open court but fired a forehand into the net. With Murray serving for the match, naturally, Ferrer broke him back.
At the end, it could have been a prizefight.
With one game left the two players sat slumped in their changeover chairs. An ATP trainer vigorously rubbed Ferrer's left thigh. Murray, meanwhile, chatted calmly with a doctor about his apparently sprained left ankle.
When Murray's running backhand volley veered wide, Ferrer had his match point. Only a brave forehand kept Murray in it, although Ferrer unsuccessfully challenged the call.
The tiebreaker was weirdly anticlimactic.
Murray blew out to a 4-0 lead and was never seriously challenged. When it was over, he shed his hat and buried his face in his hands.
In his running battle with Djokovic, Murray has now crept to the ranking spot just below. With Lendl in his corner the rest of the season, it will intriguing to see if he can make that final leap.