Murray's emphatic 2008 was just the beginning

Pigeonholed as the petulant one, Andy Murray displayed a jovial side to him this past season. Pedro Armestre/AFP/Getty Images

Andy Murray has something of a reputation around tennis circles: He's known for being exceptionally talented and a bit intense. In fact, the word "difficult" has more than once been bantered around.

There's absolutely no question regarding his meteoric rise and aptitude as a player, though. Murray joined the top 100 in 2005 and ended his first full season on tour at No. 65. In 2006, he moved up to a year-end No. 17, which he bested in 2007, finishing at No. 11. Now he's No. 4 and was a first-time Grand Slam finalist at the U.S. Open in September.

In terms of personality, however, there remains a divided opinion.

All of the British media attached themselves to a teenage Murray's hip even before their previous favorite son, Tim Henman, announced his retirement. Some describe a number of tense moments with Murray, Scotland's pride and joy. But others speak about a different Murray: an easy-going guy, cooperative and polite, whom they enjoy dealing with regularly.

Not to suggest that Murray has a split personality, but the outgoing, more fun-loving Murray definitely exists; it's just too often hidden behind the all-business approach he takes regarding his career.

Nevertheless, Murray exhibited his jovial side earlier this month when he was the marquee guest at Mardy Fish's annual charity event -- Mardy's Tennis & Jake's Music Fest -- in Fish's hometown of Vero Beach, Fla. Bearing no pressure to perform to a high competitive standard, Murray delighted the capacity crowd -- he was entertaining and good-natured.

Murray even laughed when Fish explained to spectators how he fudged a bit to entice his friend to commit to the exhibition. Apparently, he told Murray that Vero Beach was only a two-hour drive from Miami, where Murray is training for the upcoming 2009 season. The drive actually took Murray 3½ hours.

And to top off his visit before heading back to Miami, Murray actually bid on his own racket as well as one of Fish's in an on-court auction, driving a gentleman in the crowd to match his $5,000 bid. Murray let the fan have the rackets, but still footed the bill.

Good times aside, Murray acknowledges he's usually a no-nonsense kind of guy. And there's a simple explanation for why he almost always has his game face on.

"When I'm on the tennis court I'm at work; that's what I do for a living," Murray told ESPN.com after beating Fish 8-6 in a pro-set. "I love playing and I need to be serious. It's what you have to do to be at the top of any sport. But when I have some time off, I'm pretty chilled out."

What sets Murray apart from the three guys ranked above him -- No. 1 Rafael Nadal, No. 2 Roger Federer and No. 3 Novak Djokovic -- is lack of muscle, even though Murray had bulked up during this year. Against the top three, Murray holds a winning record over only Federer (4-2), winning three of their four encounters this season but losing the most important of their matches: the U.S. Open final. Nadal leads Murray 5-1 in career meetings, with the Scotsman's only victory coming in this year's U.S. Open semifinals. And Djokovic has a 4-2 advantage against Murray.

Becoming a top-five player was by no means a solo effort.

Team Murray is five deep: Miles Maclagan as coach, Louis Cayer as advisor/coach, Andy Ireland as physiotherapist, Matt Little as strength and conditioning coach and Jez Green as physical conditioner behind Little. Murray assembled the group when he parted ways in November 2007 with Brad Gilbert, for whom the British Lawn Tennis Association footed a megabucks bill so its star-in-waiting would have the best coaching advice money could buy. Nevertheless, after Murray moved up the tennis ladder under Gilbert's tutelage, he was ready to be his own boss.

Murray plans to keep his team intact for 2009, and everybody on Team Murray seems to be happy on the job, working toward a common goal to make their charge an eventual Grand Slam champion.

"The team is the same because you don't change a winning formula," Little said. "We're just privileged to be along for the ride."

Little, who accompanied Murray to Fish's event, didn't exactly looked dressed for a serious discussion about Murray's condition as he sat courtside. Little wore fuchsia velour running pants, a hot pink V-neck top and a baby pink sweater. Wearing the "hot" women's outfit was Little's payback for losing a bet to Murray -- it was Little's contention that Murray would not win a coveted Masters Series event in 2008. He actually won two: Cincinnati and Madrid.

As the conditioning guru, Little sounded minimally concerned about the fizzle Murray showed in his Tennis Masters Cup semifinal match against Nikolay Davydenko last month. The loss was a residual effect of his final round-robin encounter versus Roger Federer the day before, which lasted more than three hours. Murray, who had already secured his spot in the semifinals, won that match in three taut sets.

"He had such a long year and he'd given the year his all, and against Roger, that's a tough match anyway," Little said. "He really wanted to beat Roger; he didn't see that as a dead match at all, so he gave that match his all. I guess he had nothing left in his tank against Davydenko. But it is something that we've worked on more this year, the aspect of recovery between matches. But he's had to play a lot of matches because he won a lot of matches this year, and we're pleased with that."

Training this offseason at the University of Miami, there's scant time for a vacation for Murray, who is putting in long hours each day to get ready for his 2009 campaign. When asked what he would improve, Murray is quick to identify his net game and gaining a little muscle. But Murray also is careful to emphatically point out that he believes he has no glaring weaknesses.

Little, of course, has his agenda: continue to help Murray improve.

"We're working on strength a lot, and he's trying to put some weight on so he can get more power into his shot," Little said of their offseason regimen. "We're looking for him to have a more muscular physique and become more robust for the year ahead."

Murray shows little concern about the possibility of a 2009 letdown after his incredible 2008 season. Besides reaching his first Grand Slam final, he won five titles. Anecdotally, many players struggle to equal or exceed their breakout year, but the plain-talking Murray is quite confident he has the right formula to prevent that fate from being his destiny.

"The last three, four months were awesome and I'm just getting back into training," Murray said. "I know I had a great year, but I'm not dwelling on it. I want to keep improving and, hopefully, I can play well at the start of next year.

"I'm going to be trying harder than I did last year, so I'm hoping the results will come. If you start resting on your laurels after having a great year then things can get tougher. But if you keep working hard and try to improve you should be OK."

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.