For Andy Murray, yesterday was a just reward for years of hard work he has put in for the sport he loves. The five set victory over defending champion Novak Djokovic finally saw him end his grand slam hoodoo but it was so close to the heartbreak he has felt many times before.
History was going to be broken one way or the other with two years stuck in the back of people’s minds; 1936 or 1949. When Murray narrowly avoided a second set collapse from 4-0, it finally looked like he would be the one to end the seventy-six year wait for a British grand slam champion in men’s singles, becoming the first since Fred Perry. Fast forward around a hundred minutes and it was looking much more likely that he would be the first man since Ted Schroeder to lose from two sets up in a US Open final (Guillermo Coria, French Open 2004 holds this unfortunate honour in any slam) for sixty-three years.
Murray looked to be suffering physically and perhaps mentally as he failed to deal with a sudden Djokovic surge in the middling sets. His body language looked visibly worse and the frequent outbursts at himself seen during defeats in the past were making a return. It must have been a boost for Djokovic to see his opponent shouting out “jelly” during the match in reference to his tired legs during the fourth set.
The fourth set ended when Murray was broken for the second time to allow Djokovic to begin serving for the fifth, a big advantage for the Serbian most would think. It turned out to be somewhat of a blessing in disguise for Andy, as it allowed to him to regroup and play an excellent return game which gave him the vital break. A nervous Murray serving first in the decider could have buckled and an early break may have seen Djokovic run away with it. A double break advantage was halved again but Murray’s confidence was backed, capped off with a monster game on serve to take a 4-2 lead. A worn out Djokovic was broken once more, calling for the trainer before Murray would have the first of two opportunities to serve for it.
The possible gamesmanship, or so the New York crowd thought as they proceeded to boo him, had no impact on Murray who showed nerves of steel, holding to 15 to take his first slam at the fifth time of asking, much like his coach Ivan Lendl. The normally ice cold Lendl even managed a smile during the post match happenings!
The journey leading up to this moment hasn’t been straight forward as he had to endure heartbreak four times, with just one set as reward for his efforts in defeats to Roger Federer (3x) and Novak Djokovic in Australia, England and America. These have unfairly led to accusations of Murray being a choker despite never being in a position to win in any of these matches and starting as a heavy underdog in all. As many have pointed out, Murray is extremely unlucky to have been born in an era consisting of three true greats. Roger Federer is thought of by many as the greatest player of all time, while Rafael Nadal has held a tight grip on the French Open and Novak Djokovic had one of the best seasons ever in 2011, picking up three of the four slams available. In another era, there seems little doubt the breakthrough would have took less than twenty eight tournaments for his first title.
It could be said that a lot of sporting achievements cannot be achieved without luck and Murray definitely had a couple of things in his favour. Rafael Nadal has been a constant thorn in Murray’s side in slams, with the Scot often struggling on any surface against him, while Roger Federer was in his best form for years and back at the No.1 spot. Murray had to play neither of these and instead faced Federer’s conqueror, Tomas Berdych, in the semi final. That said, Murray isn’t the first person to benefit from the draw and most definitely won’t be the last. Berdych is definitely still a dangerous player who can trouble the top players at his best. I’m not sure it matters all that much anyway given that Murray outlasted the best hard court player of the last two years in the final which is an exceptional feat whatever the circumstances. Djokovic can also feel hard done by on the farcical scheduling from the US Open organisers including failing to start his match at the same time on ‘Super Saturday’ as Murray when the weather dictated both matches were never going to be finished in time, barring a freak accident.
This victory is just as much about Murray though and two other factors were key to his success – Ivan Lendl and the Olympic Games. At the start of the year Lendl became Murray’s new coach and the progress was instant – he was one point away from serving for a place in the final but Novak Djokovic fought on to hold and eventually take the match. Plagued with niggles throughout the clay season, the French Open was a bit of a write off but never a realistic target anyway. Come Wimbledon in late June, Murray made the final there for the first time and took a set before weather dictated the roof closure and change of conditions that swung in his opponents favour. For the first time in a final, it looked like he was on a level footing and could possibly count himself unfortunate for the match to be delayed when it did. Vitally, he continued to improve and had more belief than ever before.
Fast forward a few weeks to the Olympic Games in London. With British athletes achieving brilliant results in a variety of sports and focus elsewhere, this was a far cry from Wimbledon and it’s “Will a Britain finally win?” at the start of the tournament before the eventual disappoint kicks in for another year with the media. Less pressure worked to his favour as he dismantled the top two players in the world. Novak Djokovic was sent out in straight sets without managing to break the serve of Murray while Roger Federer was blown off the court in possibly his worst performance in a grass court match for a long time, if not ever. While many question the importance of tennis at the Olympics, it gave Murray a belief that he could compete at the highest level. He didn’t just compete but was the better player in all aspects of the game. It was incredibly disrespectful to both Murray and Federer to suggest that the Swiss’ heart was not in this match. A gold medal is the only thing missing in a trophy-laden career and the simple fact was that Murray was just too good on the day.
Murray has often been disliked by many in the UK for his tongue in cheek comments made all the way back in 2006 regarding the World Cup. Like most Scottish people would have done, he jokily remarked during an interview that he would be supporting “Anybody but England” when mocked about Scotland’s non-qualification for the tournament. It is something that has bizarrely stuck with him and this experience could possibly explain his perceived dour personality as having attempted to show a lighter side of himself has created much more hassle than it was worth in terms of engaging with the media and opening up.
It is a shame that such a thing has happened as Murray appears to an intelligent and well spoken man – he has spoken at depth about the WTA and most recently was one of many leading tributes to the recently retired Kim Clijsters. The Wimbledon defeat to Roger Federer didn’t only signal progress in terms of his performance in finals, but his tears showed another side to him that very few had seen from him before. An emotional Murray said “I’m getting closer” in his post match speech after the defeat. With just three words, Murray won a lot of fans. His self deprecating humour may not be to the liking of everybody but it showed he can make light of a situation, even in the most disappointing moment of his career to date.
The US Open victory can finally put the debate to rest about whether it is a big three or a big four. While Murray had always been competing well against Djokovic, Federer and Nadal the missing piece of the jigsaw eluded him time and time again. For years the question was always “When?” but now it should be “How many?”