There is something about prodigies that makes you pause and take notice. Perhaps it’s the promise that the perfect forehand swing of a 9 year old holds, or maybe it’s just the variety of ways in which we have known these stories to evolve. Sometimes, it turns out it was just a spark that wouldn’t last, others, an erratic burst of talent that would awe you on occasions but would abscond on most days. There are a few other times, only a few, when the spark lingers and lights up the horizon of sport, when the prodigy turns into a legend.
Fourteen summers ago, when two kids from two different worlds, with little in common except for a passion to belt the ball across the tennis court met in France, you couldn’t help but notice the outrageous amount of talent on show which is gifted only to a precious few. A couple of years later at the Flushing Meadows, when Andy Murray won the Boys Singles Championship, a few might even have ventured to say that Novak, the other kid, would be consumed in Andy’s shadow.
But then, that’s the thing about prodigies. You never know how they will turn out. Fourteen years on, Novak Djokovic has won five grand slams, become the World No 1, won the Davis Cup for Serbia, a Bronze at the Olympics and had what is, arguably, the greatest year in this sport. Yes, there were players before who won 3 Grand Slams in a year and had near-perfect win percentages, but what sets Djokovic’s year apart is the quality of the opposition. Only months ago, we were talking about how Federer and Nadal were the greatest players to have ever been contemporaries and to imagine that the following year a 24-year-old Serb would come and beat either or both of them on every playing surface, is truly brilliant. Novak Djokovic kept his date with destiny while Andy Murray watched from the sidelines, easing to the semi-finals of tournament after tournament, failing to rise to the fight that the ultimate stages of the competition present.
Tennis is a gruelling sport. When you stand alone on Centre Court at Wimbledon playing for the Championship, watched by millions of people and completely aware of the fact that a single unforced error could mean the difference between the Champion and an ‘also played’, that is when you feel the pressure. It is the stuff of the champions not to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment, to have the belief and the will to fight for every single point.
Perhaps that’s what stands between the two prodigies – mental strength. When Djokovic beat Andy Murray earlier this year in a five-setter that lasted close to five hours in the semi-finals of the Australian Open, only to face Rafael Nadal who had an extra day of rest, in the finals, logic told us that he wouldn’t last. But Djokovic wasnt operating in the commonplace of logic and odds any more. The longest rally in the final came in the fifth set, over six hours after the start of play. In a pure battle of endurance, Djokovic lost the point and lay on the ground, his heart pounding. I remember telling my friends, “Nadal’s done it again, he’s outlasted his opponent”. Minutes later, Djokovic was ripping his shirt apart as “I Will Survive” played in the background. He had outlasted Rafael Nadal.
Would Andy Murray have survived that match?
Djokovic had once said “I have been through two wars in my 24 years, and I know what it’s like to be without anything, to see the bombs flying above your head.” While Djokovic was spending his months as a kid and a teenager in the bunkers, praying for survival, Murray was perhaps being persuaded to practice for an extra hour to work on that lob. It was only last year when the English media was doing their routine analysis of why an Englishman hasn’t won the Wimbledon, that we read reports of Murray refusing to travel with his team to the tournaments, and preferring the company of his friends instead. He was always a player who could play delightful tennis, exceptional even, but he wasn’t always a player who wanted to win badly enough.
Would Andy Murray have survived that match? Perhaps not.
This Wimbledon, however, we have seen an Andy Murray who is willing to fight. He certainly got the draw from hell, and if not for a brilliant stroke of luck (sorry, Lucas Rosol), he would have been facing Rafael Nadal today. But right through this tournament he has played with a sense of purpose, played, for once, like a man who wanted to go all the way. Yes, there were the tantrums and the outbursts, but never a display of attitude that suggested lack of intent. Maybe it’s the association with an absolute legend and a champion in Ivan Lendl that’s building up a winner’s mindset, maybe he’s just had enough attention for not winning a Slam from the often inconsiderate English media, maybe it’s the inevitable comparison with Novak Djokovic who, born only a week apart and a childhood friend, has much more to show today. Whatever the reason, we have seen a Murray who is willing to fight and that’s brilliant. With Nadal knocked out and Federer and Djokovic already meeting in the semi-finals, a Djokovic-Murray final would be spectacular. If the prodigies meet again on the most sacred courts of Tennis, we will know if things have changed.