Journeyman, Choker, Best in the World: The Saga of Andy Murray
Andy Murray's rise to the top in the era of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic is a modern day Everyman tale.
Andy Murray is a giant of world tennis, who has had the misfortune of walking among the tallest Titans of the sport. If you're playing at the same time Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, it takes all the mental strength you can spare to stay motivated enough to go to work After his defeat at the hands of Federer in the 2010 Australian Open final Murray had famously said. “I can cry like Roger, it's just a shame I can't play like him.”
Murray was referring to Federer's public breakdown after a difficult five-set loss to Rafael Nadal at the same event the previous year. Federer, however, had followed that setback with a rampage, winning three of the next four Grand Slam tournaments, completing his 'Career Slam' by winning his only French Open, and then following it up with a record-tying 7th Wimbledon. Murray was to have no such bounty.
The Stubborn Scottish Streak
Having been noticed early on as a precocious talent, Murray flattered to deceive. Reaching his first Grand Slam final at the 2008 US Open, a tournament he lost to Federer, it took him a further four years and four attempts to win his first title. When he finally did it, the atmosphere was more one of relief than inevitability. Kevin Mitchell had placed it perfectly when he had written “Thank God that's over. Thank God we can let Fred Perry lie easy.
Thank God for Andy Murray.” It helped that the last man to lose his first four Grand Slam finals, before going on to win eight of them, the obdurate Ivan Lendl, was in his corner. Lendl's guidance has been a key factor this year as well, and his return to Grand Slam winning ways sparked a storied resurgence. Grit is a thing Murray has never lacked, but his mental fortitude has often deserted him when he has needed it most. This year would prove to be different.
Following the French Open, Andy Murray was 8035 points behind Novak Djokovic, who seemed to be lightly floating on the tennis court, turning everything he touched to gold. Djokovic has, for the past couple of years, been well-nigh unbeatable.
Murray's rise coincided with Djokovic's sudden, inexplicable fall. While the fortunes of one sky-rocketed, the other's plummeted like the stock market on a really bad election day. It is not a situation Murray is used to being in, and the reverse has been the norm throughout their careers.
Success in Tennis depends as much upon the ability to make the most out of situations as it is about raising one's game to world-beating levels. Murray won't be looking this gift horse in the mouth, except when it comes to learning more of Djokovic's emerging weaknesses, as he steels himself in preparation to building on his gains in the years to come.
Walking Among the Titans
Murray has a horrible record when it comes to matchups with the other members of the 'Big Four'. His has been a case of 'Always the best man, never the groom'. This is what makes his current feat all the more extraordinary. Sample this: Murray has 2-8 record in Grand Slam matches against Djokovic. He had also lost their only previous encounter at the ATP World Tour Finals, in 2012. His record against Nadal stands at 2-7 in Grand Slams and 0-2 in Tour Finals, while against Federer, whom he dominated in the early stages of their rivalry, he has a 1-5 record in Slams and a 1-4 in the year-end championships. He has played 10 of his 11 Grand Slam finals against Djokovic or Federer, holding a 2-5 record against the former and a 0-3 against the latter.
Combine this with the fact that the trio of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have completely dominated the men's game over the last 13 years. Ever since Federer finished as the year-end No.1 in 2003, the three of them have held the year-end ranking among themselves for twelve years.
Murray, as the 26th man to be ranked No.1 in the world for Singles and only the 17th to finish year-end No.1 since the ATP rankings were formally instituted in 1973, has incredible numbers to contend with. Federer has been world No.1 longer than any other male singles player, at 302 weeks, but Djokovic(223) at 5th and Nadal(141) at 7th are also not far behind.
Federer(17 titles), Nadal(14) and Djokovic(12) have also won more Grand Slam titles than any other man in history except Pete Sampras, who ties Nadal and is just ahead of Djokovic. Against such figures, Murray's 3 Slams may seem a meagre haul, but in fact they only highlight the immensity of the resistance he has overcome.
Just as Stan Wawrinka's late career surge and 3 Slam titles are remarkable in the context of the Big Four's dominance of the sport, Murray's titles are a representation of his career-long struggle to overcome his demons and to come out of the shadow of the other three.
Records like becoming the first ever male player to win two Olympic singles golds or being the first British player in 77 years to win Wimbledon, or going down in history as the first British player to become world No.1 attain additional sheen when we place them beside the titanic achievements of his closest rivals. Andy Murray has lived with immense expectation all his life, and he has failed often enough to ensure that his victories are all the sweeter. And this victory is sweeter than any other.
Tennis, like all sports, loves an underdog story. Ironically enough, a career like Murray's would have achieved legendary status in any other era, but it took a 2016, with a second Olympic singles gold, a second Wimbledon title and the year-end championships, for Murray to finally make it.
However, it was his herculean effort in putting together one of the greatest runs in sporting history against an opponent at the peak of his powers, that will really stand out when Murray's star settles in the tennis sky.
For the first time in his career, Andy Murray seems unable to stop winning, as evidenced by his best-ever run of 24 straight wins, and a best-ever haul of 9 titles, 8 of which came post his heartbreaking defeat in the French Open final. For the first time in his career, Murray looks like he has the belief that he needs to beat anyone.
And it looks like this confidence is here to stay. Andy Murray has become the man to beat, at least for a while. It seems the eternal choker has finally swallowed the bone stuck in his throat, and set himself in steelier resolve. It could be that marriage and parenthood has finally given him, as it had done for Djokovic before him, the steadiness and peace of mind that he so sorely needed. However it has come about, Andy Murray is a changed player mentally, and it is reflecting in his results.
Whether Andy Murray slips and relinquishes the top spot too quickly is a matter for time to determine. For the moment, he has fulfilled what he promised to do long ago. The outsider has finally arrived to stake his claim to the throne.
It is fitting that he did so by dethroning his rival Djokovic and then defeating him to cement his reign at the top. There is almost a sense of poetic justice to it. For Murray, this victory is the crowning moment of a fateful year, coming as it does over a man who started out together with him but raced ahead to join the towering figures of Federer and Nadal at the top of the game.
But Andy Murray has shown that he is done waiting in the flanks, and will not be denied his share in the glory. Murray's is a career of firsts, and he is used to overturning decades-old records. His fate is to go up against history, and to keep failing but never giving up, till history itself has to relent and give him what he wants.
It is in the face of immense odds, and at the end of seemingly unending frustration and near-fulfilment, that Andy Murray has thrived the most. It is when he is written off and ridiculed that he finds most motivation to prove himself.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are perhaps the Holy Trinity, the Divinity in the world of tennis. But Andy Murray is still a man among Gods, and that remains his appeal. He is a champion still within reach, an ordinary man doing extraordinary things, whose failures could be those of any of the millions of people watching him play week in week out. It is the reason why the ordinary tennis fan can empathise with him and draw inspiration from his success.
He has earned the deserved reward of years of unshaken faith in himself and an incredible work ethic. He exemplifies that eternal lesson of all sport that teaches us about life itself — no destination is impossible to reach, if you learn to pick yourself up every time you fall down. Andy Murray has made a career out of stumbling very near the finish line and then getting up from the dirt, only to continue the race each time. For the first time ever, he will be leading the pack.