After having taken the World No.1 crown from Novak Djokovic at the Paris-Bercy Masters earlier this year, Andy Murray would have to fight once again in order to keep that title. This time, it would have to be on a stage Murray had never been on before – the finals at the ATP World Tour Finals.
And storm through it, he did. After a difficult, languid semi-final against his Wimbledon finals rival Milos Raonic, many Murray fans’ hopes may have dropped just a little bit. But the Scot, whose consistency and hard work have singularly propelled him to the top of the rankings after a seven-year wait, delivered in the finals, and how.
A 6-3, 6-4 victory over a languishing Novak Djokovic meant Murray, who had so tirelessly worked all year to eliminate his competitor’s 8,000 point lead, would retain the title of the world’s best men’s singles player. It was a title he had aimed for as a 12-year-old, interviewed as wanting as a 14-year-old, and now, at 29, with blood, sweat and tears, he finally had it.
No doubt it was by sheer dint of Murray’s hard work that he was able to reach that ranking, but Murray’s upswing was aided by what can only be described as perhaps the lowest period of Novak Djokovic’s career so far.
Peaking at the French Open – where this year, the Serb won his first ever title, Djokovic had a fairly strong clay season and won the Montreal Masters – but his season was not much to speak of after. Failing at the only grass court tournament he played this year – Wimbledon, with a third-round loss to American Sam Querrey, Djokovic looked tired, defeated, and completely out of character.
Since then, he has gone on to hire the services of ‘life guru’ Pepe Imaz, who he has said helps with managing his stress. Coach Marian Vajda has described him as a “broken man.”
But the Djokovic who congratulated Andy Murray yesterday was a gracious competitor, a rival who congratulated his own with ease. And even in his stupendous victory, Murray acknowledged the immense skill it takes for a man to be Novak Djokovic.
“Obviously... I played a good performance,” he said to reporters after the match. “It needs to be good to defeat Novak Djokovic. You never beat a player that good if you don’t play well.” Clarifying neither had played a ‘bad’ match, Murray said “both of us have played better matches than that one.”
Djokovic and Murray have been rivals for much of both their careers – and, close to each other in age, the two have also gone through the motions of life almost parallely.
“It was obviously a big, big match against someone who I’ve played so many big matches against, my main rival really throughout my career. We played in all of the slam finals, Olympics, here now and a match to finish the year No1. We played in loads of Masters Series finals, as well, and are one week apart in age. It was just a huge match to finish the year,” Murray said.
And he was greeted with warmth and appreciation by the man whose throne of greatness had just been snatched from him. Taking the loss on the chin, Djokovic was as gracious in defeat as he is in victory, warm and affable and as friendly as his social media might suggest.
“We should all let Andy enjoy this a little bit,” he said. “Don’t ask him questions about next season. He deserves to be in the moment and to take in what he achieved. His team as well – and his wife. She has to get some credit, guys,” Djokovic said, acknowledging Kim Sears, Murray’s partner of over a decade. The pair, who married in 2015, welcomed daughter Sophia this year, and Sears is said to be one of Murray’s strongest support systems since he was a teenager.
Djokovic continued, “She (Kim) gave birth this year. He has travelled all over the place. I know how it is with my wife, Jelena, what she had to go through as a mother back home with a little baby. So, Kim, well done. She’s maybe made even a bigger effort than Andy.” Djokovic shares son Stefan, named for former No. 1 Stefan Edberg, with wife Jelena; both the Serb and the Scot have been with their respective partners since high school – something Murray would go on to mention.
“Both of us have been with our wives a long time, pretty much since we were like 18, 19 years old. We met each other’s wives together at that age, as well. We’ve known each other a very long time,” Murray said, disclosing that the pair’s off-court conversations were seldom about tennis, but shared life experiences instead.”
“When me and Novak speak with each other, we don’t talk about tennis, rankings, the matches we play against each other. Maybe when we finish playing, that might change. But we talk about each other’s families, children and stuff.”
Murray, whose first child, Sophia, was born earlier this year, said Djokovic, whose son is one, had given him invaluable advice. “We chatted at length this year quite a lot because obviously I became a father the first time. We spoke about the difficulty in keeping the sort of balance in your life with the family and the travelling and the work and everything.”
He also rubbished rumours that the pair did not get along, clarifying instead that they were close friends. Regardless of what some of you may think, we have a good relationship. It’s not always easy when you’re playing on court in the biggest matches with a lot at stake, but we’ve always got on well with each other.”
In an age of tennis where we have seen some iconic friendships and rivalries – like that of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, it would be nice to see yet another one.