Andy Murray had to do it the hardest way
It's so easy, after the fact, to imagine it was all so inevitable, that we were always going to get here, and many pieces have been written that see the hand of destiny giving extra oomph to Andy Murray's shots in that Wimbledon final while coaxing Novak Djokovic's into uncharacteristic error.
This does Andy a little bit of a disservice.
There was nothing inevitable about any of this.
Those of us who have supported Andy Murray from early 2005, when he made his Davis Cup debut, successfully, against Israel, or even earlier than that, have known for a long time that Andy had the talent to get very near the top of tennis and hang around for a while.
This realisation may have come quickly for some, emerging into full-blown certainty. For others, it was a steady levelling up of belief, as he passed test after test, though I think in for many, the display against Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open in 2007 was a key marker.
Changing his game style to one of hitherto unseen levels of aggression, Andy dragged Rafa, by then already twice Roland Garros champion and Wimbledon finalist, into a 5 set battle before ultimately fading. At this point, even many who felt Andy had no weapons with which to hurt Rafa, conceded that he might have a few tricks up his sleeve, although not the stamina to use them all.
Indeed, 2007 was a notable year in the story of Andy Murray.
Consider this: Until 2007, Andy and his friend and rival Novak Djokovic, had followed pretty similar career paths. They burst into the top 100 in 2005 - Novak in July, Andy in October. They chased each other up the rankings in 2006, Novak usually slightly ahead, and ended the season one place apart - Andy at 17 and Novak one place higher at 16.
They were both poised in 2007 to make an assault on the top 10, and at the Australian Open, both met similar fates - Andy, as described, falling to Nadal in 5, while Djokovic was handed a lesson by reigning world number one Roger Federer in 3, both at the fourth round stage. Both had a solid February swing, with Andy defending his San José title, while Novak posted some solid wins in Europe and Dubai.
Novak kept his nose in front of Andy when they met up in both Indian Wells and Miami. Both made the SFs and played each other, Novak won both rather easily, cementing his reputation as the best of the coming players, with Murray close behind. Indeed, Novak won his first Masters title in Miami, beating surprise finalist Canas. This rankings trend seemed destined to continue, with Novak's clearly greater comfort on the red dirt of Europe likely to give him a rankings edge over Murray. So it proved through Monte-Carlo and Rome, until an random event happened in Hamburg that caused a major divergence in the career paths of these two young men.
Novak made the QFs in Hamburg, but Andy didn't make it out of R1. Playing Filippo Volandri, and slapping him quite handily, Andy went for a topspin forehand, yelped in pain and dropped the racquet. An injury timeout made no difference, and he was forced to retire.
While Novak made the SFs of Roland Garros and Wimbledon, tendon damage would keep Andy from competing in either event. Novak had risen to #3 in the world as a result of his excellent year. Andy, unable to play, had slipped back to #13 by the end of Wimbledon. While Novak went on to score his first win over Roger Federer in winning the Canada Masters, Andy, back from injury but deeply distrusting of his wrist, could only win a round in which he hit his forehand with slice 75% of the time, before being crushed by Fabio Fognini. While Andy, slowly rebuilding confidence, struggled to a R3 showing at the US Open, Novak capped off an excellent summer by reaching the US Open final, where he fell to Federer in an extremely tight match. While Novak had a solid end to the season and appeared at his first Tennis Masters Cup, Andy rebuilt his confidence, added another tour title, but narrowly missed out on a Masters Cup place by losing to Gasquet at the Paris Masters. It would prove to be a fitting metaphor for the season, but perhaps even more fitting a marker of the divergence was the start of 2008, when Andy, primed for a run in Melbourne and expected to go far, slumped to a R1 defeat to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who himself would go on to the final where he would be beaten by Novak Djokovic, lifting his first major in the process.
This is not to conclude that, had Andy's wrist injury not happened, he would have kept pace with or surpassed Djokovic - that is to assume far too much. It was already clear that Djokovic's great prowess on clay would give him a potential rankings edge, and while it was argued that Murray had a greater feel on the ball and more tactical choices at his disposal, Djokovic was felt to have the edge mentally and to be, generally speaking, a better match player in his ability to cope with the pressures of the ebb and flow of match circumstances.
What is evident, though, is that by the time Andy Murray regained the ground he lost due to his wrist injury (and that did not come until mid 2008 in rankings terms), he now had three serious obstacles to the top instead of two. Federer and Nadal owned the top spots, but Djokovic was firmly entrenched just behind them, had one major under his belt, and was slowly but surely getting even better. Andy, once again, was playing catch-up.
Andy was relentless in pursuit of his goal to win a major. He'd seen his friend and rival achieve this ambition and establish himself as a force to be reckoned with. Andy hired a team of people to make him as physically fit as possible, worked with this coach and that coach, consulted a sports psychologist, but nothing seemed to make that tiny bit of difference needed. He continued to battle with inconsistency in his results, and when he did reach major finals, he couldn't find a way to release his best tennis. The first final at the US Open in 2008 was a bit of a non-event. Andy, tired from seeing off Rafa the day before in the SFs, was put to the sword pretty efficiently by Roger Federer, who repeated the feat at the 2010 Australian Open. This time Andy was physically ready but mentally unable to take the few chances that came his way. Despite having several chances to extend the match to 4 sets, he ultimately lost in 3, and did the same 12 months later to Djokovic, who added his second major. This was Murray's worst slam showing of the lot, his utter frustration at not being able to produce his best preventing him for getting anywhere near producing his best. It was an abject display, and perfectly highlighted the gulf that had grown between these two players. Murray's consistency would keep him in or around the top 4 throughout this period, but in terms of ability to deliver on the biggest stages, The Big 4 clearly had a junior member.
In 2011, while Djokovic elevated his game to even greater heights and went on a tear that saw him lift three of the four majors and ascend to the number one ranking, Murray couldn't seem to find his way past a certain Rafael Nadal, who stopped him in the SFs of Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open - at the latter two losing to Djokovic in the finals.
The expectation on Murray to win a Grand Slam had been high since before he made his first major final in 2008. 4 years had gone by, 3 major finals had come and gone, and not a set had been won. Djokovic was on high, Nadal was almost as formidable as ever, and Federer still could produce tournaments of incredible quality. Increasingly it was wondered if the window had closed. Surely, with that much talent at the top, and new talent sure to emerge from the next generation, and with Del Potro managing to snatch a major in 2009, Andy's moment had gone?
If others were starting to wonder, Andy's own self-doubts were beginning to rise too. He continued to work hard, but the weight of those three major finals and no sets won hung heavy upon him. What's to say that the same wouldn't happen again next time? Murray had had to play Federer twice and Djokovic once in his finals. Federer beat the equally slamless Philippoussis in his first final, Nadal had the equally slamless Puerta in his, and Djokovic had had the equally slamless Tsonga in his (albeit after Djokovic beat Federer in the SFs). The route to that first slam always seemed to have a major-winning obstacle in his way in the final. Still, he persevered, and made a decision that proved in time to be a stroke of genius.
Rumours of Ivan Lendl linking up with Andy Murray in a coaching capacity had first surfaced early in 2011. It was an intriguing notion at the time, but nothing seemed likely to come of it, and at that point, nothing did. Ivan Lendl had been away from the game of tennis since his retirement, working on his golf and his family, not necessarily in that order. It wasn't until the off season at the end of 2011 that moved were made, conversations were had, and Lendl was hired.
Lendl brought many qualities to the partnership. Though untested as a coach, he was a perennial hard worker who would demand the same of his charge. He would be honest - he didn't need the money and thus had no concerns about keeping his job, he could afford to be motivated only by the greater good. He and Andy's personalities clicked quickly, an important element of a relationship as close as this. He was a major winner, and thus immediately worthy of Andy's respect. Andy's problem with his earlier coaches was that, ultimately, none of them had won a major and thus a part of him could not believe that the advice they were giving would make the difference. Even Corretja, a player Andy respected and admired, had never managed to capture a major from his two final appearances. 'How do you know?', always seemed to be the unspoken question.
Lendl, however, HAD also been in a similar situation in his own career, losing the first four slam finals he played back in the 80s. He then turned it around and went on to win 8 majors. Here was an authentic voice of experience that could help Murray get over that final hurdle, as he himself had once done.
After a promising start, with Andy pushing Djokovic to the brink in the 2012 Australian Open SF, things seemed to stagnate a little, in spite of Lendl saying it would take 6-9 months to show genuine results. Indeed, when Murray lost in the first match at Queens to Nicolas Mahut, some commentators (who rapidly changed their tune) were suggesting that the Murray-Lendl partnership was doomed from the start and had a very short shelf-life remaining.
Andy reacted as he always had - put his head down and carried on working hard. He strolled through the draw at Wimbledon, and, not finding a Rafa in the SFs, was able to get past Tsonga in a nervy 4 sets and reach his first final. Great Britain, already ramping up for a summer of Olympic sporting madness, promptly went crazy. Andy put up a good fight against Federer, showing at last some of his best tennis in a slam final, winning the first set and staying very close in the second. Then Roger stepped up, snatched the second set with some superb tennis, the rains came, the roof closed, and the rest is history.
'I'm getting closer,' sniffled Andy as he tearfully thanked his box, the crowd and the country for the support. The words, at the time seen almost as a plea for people to keep the faith with him, would in retrospect seem to be prophetic.
Forced to recover quickly from what Andy described as the most difficult loss of his career, Andy had no time to wallow if he wanted to do come back to the same location and play well at a tournament he really cared about - the Olympic Games. Held in London for the first time since 1948, with the tennis played at a Wimbledon decked out in pink, the country, and Andy, wanted to seize this historic opportunity to do well on home soil. His previous Olympic experience in Beijing was a bitter memory for him - arriving late from winning Cincinnati in brutal conditions and then standing for hours on a humid day for the opening ceremony, Andy was dehydrated and had lost kilos of muscle mass from skipping meals. The result was a dreadful performance in his opening match to Yen-Hsun Lu, losing in straight sets, and then another rapid loss in the doubles. It was a wretched tournament and one Andy was desperate not to repeat.
In the event, Andy, riding a wave of patriotic fervour, and feeling inspired himself by the Team GB performances on the athletics field, progressed smoothly through the draw, dismissed Djokovic in the SF in straight sets, and played a match of poise, control and maturity to dish out a straights defeat to his Wimbledon bogeyman Federer in the Gold Medal Match. Andy was Olympic champion. While not a major, it was a huge deal for him and for his fellow players, and it proved to add a vital patch to Andy's leaky roof of self-belief in the toughest weather.
Rolling up at the US Open, a little under-done on hardcourts due to his punishing early summer, Andy wasn't looking in the best shape. He seemed to be struggling with the humidity in his day matches, and stumbled through to the second week courtesy of some very up and down performances and at least one helpful choke on the other side of the net. Still, he was battling hard, and finding a way through, persevering you might say, and this quality proved extremely helpful in the semi-final. Played in a howling gale, patience was the key. Berdych ultimately lost patience with the way the ball kept moving around erratically, while Andy adjusted, and persevered, and adjusted. He prevailed in 4, and all he needed to do to win his first major was to beat the world #1, Novak Djokovic, the guy whose career path he had once tracked so closely, before 2007 and the spring of divergence.
We all know how that went down. Murray battled to a two sets to love lead, was pegged back double quick, but after a bathroom break and a stern talking to, Andy took Djokovic's legs from under him, took the title and lifted it above his head. Finally Andy had a Grand Slam title.
Here in the UK, the achievement was noted and celebrated, but if anything, this increased the pressure on Andy. He's good on grass, the reasoning went, and now he has a major. Surely, now, at last, he can win Wimbledon?
The omens going in were mixed. Having lost the Australian Open final to...Novak Djokovic, Andy had a solid US spring season, with a QF in Indian Wells and then winning Miami, beating Ferrer in the final in a gruelling encounter. Then during the clay season, indifferent results were followed by a back injury-related withdrawal from Rome, and the difficult decision was made to skip Roland Garros too.
This was a difficult decision for Andy, as he loves to compete for majors, and his ambition is not lessened by the knowledge that red clay is beneath his Barricades. Still, the medical advice was clear, and the gamble was that missing the clay, and getting some extra time on the grass, would help with the assault on the ultimate prize - Wimbledon.
Andy made his return at Queens, and though both Tsonga and Cilic proved a handful in the final two rounds, Andy lifted the title for the third time, and went into Wimbledon on an 11 match winning streak on grass, feeling physically good, and as mentally ready as he ever had been.
Landing in the same half as Federer and Nadal, Andy could expect a tough route to the title, having to take on the winner of that QF, and then likely Djokovic in the final. But the first job is to survive the first few rounds, and as both Federer and Nadal found, you can't take that for granted. Andy kept his head down, focused hard, and made his first several matches seem pretty easy, as all around him names fell or withdrew. Federer, Nadal, Tsonga and other threats all were cleared out of the draw in a week of shocks, and Andy found himself the heavy favourite to make the final out of the bottom half. In the event, the unlikely figure of Fernando Verdasco pushed Andy to the brink of the defeat in the QFs by playing his best tennis in 4 years. Andy put his head down and survived the onslaught, and then battled past the determined challenged of the equally surprising semi finalist Jerzy Janowicz. Andy had booked his place into the final, and admitted later that the pressure of being expected to get there easily had weighed on him a few times.
Djokovic, as a former winner of Wimbledon, went into the title match as slight favourite, but grass was probably his weakest surface, while it was arguable Andy's best, the home crowd would bring pressure to Andy but also massive support, and while Murray's SF was tough, Djokovic had had to squeak past the almost superhuman challenge imposed by the towering figure of Juan Martin Del Potro, and needed nearly 5 hours to do so. The match was pretty evenly poised.
In the event, the temperature was high, the rallies were long and brutal, but the stronger of the two was Murray. In a match that ebbed and flowed, rose and fell in quality, and demanded huge patience to watch as well as to play, Murray just managed to handle the big situations that bit better. He took the first set after a tense battle, but promptly fell behind in the second by a break. Andy did what he is so used to, and has become so good at - persevering. He stuck his head back down and re-focused on the task. He got back to work, recovered the break, and then broke again to take a 2 set lead. He broke at the start of the third, and looked to be coasting home against a wilting Djokovic - until it flipped once again. Djokovic took 4 games in a row to lead by a break, and a fourth set seemed imminent. Yet again, Murray, in spite of his frustrations, persevered, re-applied himself to the job, and recovered the break. He broke again and found himself serving to end that hideously irritating losing streak that British players have been beaten over the head with for decades. Quickly 40-0 up, the job looked done, but even now Djokovic refused to let it go so lightly, and reeled off four points to get to break point.
The danger was clear. Murray was looking weary in the brutal heat, and had let 3 match points slip, the pressure of the moment undoubtedly telling. If Djokovic could get it back to 5-5, all bets were off. The likelihood had to be that Djokovic would capitalise and win the third set - and then could Murray recover physically and mentally to put himself in that position again? Though still technically in the driving seat, the pain of missing that moment could have been too much of a mental load for Murray to shake off. It was all to play for.
Murray was working on instinct, concentrating on every ball, trying to shut out any extraneous noise from within and without. He and Djokovic traded back and forth, working the ball around all areas of the court, but neither could claim the run of points they needed. Once, twice, three time, Djokovic got to break point, only for Murray to find the right play to pull it back to deuce. One Murray shot clipped the back of the baseline on the break point - had it sailed just a couple of millimetres longer, the course of British tennis history could look very different right now. Instead, Murray persevered, pulled it back to deuce, battled to his fourth match point, and stood tall on the baseline. Slingshotting a huge serve out wide, Djokovic could only parry it back deep, and Murray took a big cut at his forehand into Djokovic's backhand corner. Djokovic attempted to slap the ball away down the line, but it instead crashed into the net 3/4 of the way up, and died on the court on his side. The crowd, already struggling to contain itself throughout the last epic game, went into raptures. Murray spent the first couple of minutes as Wimbledon champion almost wandering around in disbelief, as he celebrated up at the assembled press, shared a hug with the gallant and gracious Djokovic, shook the umpire's hand, and crumpled to the court. Eventually he gathered enough wits about him to sit down, and belatedly decided to go up to his player's box to share a touching moment with the people who mattered - and helped - the most.
Unlike at the US Open, where the overriding emotion Andy clearly felt was relief and capturing one major, ANY major, this time Andy was - in shock, yes - but clearly overjoyed at what this meant to him, his team, his fans, the crowd, and the British sporting world at large.
Right now, Andy sits at #2 in the ATP rankings, behind Djokovic, and when it comes to future majors away from clay in the next couple of years, conversations will start with these two. Nadal is still clearly a factor, although how much remains unclear, and Federer's powers, while on the wane, do not ever deserve to be written off - he's been discounted too many times already. However, having battled 3 of the last 4 major finals, there's a new rivalry at the top of men's tennis at the moment, and that is Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
In 2007 their career paths diverged sharply, due to Murray's injury, but perhaps also due to differences in maturity, temperament, and self-belief. There was nothing inevitable about Andy recovering that lost ground, and finally lifting majors - tennis history is littered with names of very good players who, in majors terms, ended up also-rans. What made Andy ultimately overcome that hurdle, not to mention the very real pressure of British tennis history, was his abilities, but also his willingness to work as hard as he possibly could, and leave no stone unturned in pursuit of his goals. Novak made his rise to the top look pretty effortless, although it was of course anything but. For Andy, the rise has been a longer, harder road, but it remains a triumph of hard work, dedication, a continual process of self-improvement, and above all perseverance. If Andy's career stands for anything, it is that triumph of perseverance over all doubt and all doubters, and for that triumph he deserves every ounce of respect that comes his way - he has earned it the hardest way.