In one of his dour post-match pressers last week, Murray was asked by a cheeky reporter, “Britain needs a new prime minister, a new football manager and a new Top Gear host, are you the nation’s last hope?” Of course, many conveniently forget that Englishman Lewis Hamilton is a three-time F1 Champion, and is currently on his way to a fourth title, but tennis, politics and football hold a special place in traditional British hearts. We can forget, for now, that Murray is Scottish too.
When Scotsman Andy Murray stepped out to play on May 15th this year, he was in the title match at Rome against Novak Djokovic. It was on clay, and only a week before the French Open – where the Serb was to complete his career Slam. Murray won against a weary Djokovic in Rome in straight sets, winning yet another Masters title (twice in two years) on supposedly his weakest surface. He reached the French Open final later, and lost to the World No. 1 – his second successive Slam final loss to Djokovic of the year.
It is hard not to be cynical as 29-year Andy Murray. First of all, your British – Scottish, yes, but a citizen of Great Britain – a nationality not quite its weight in gold anymore. While his nation finds itself in grave political turmoil, Murray himself must be wondering what else he needed to do to win another major. It had been three years since his 2013 Wimbledon victory. He was 26, at the peak of his powers, and it was his second slam, with many to come. A Novak-Murray rivalry was starting to capture world tennis imaginations. Over the next three years, Murray played close to his best tennis all along, and won a total of zero slams. By the end of June this year, he had reached 11 Grand Slam finals, and had won just two. For a young man who knows that he is at the pinnacle of his career, this can be a rather self-defeating number. Consistently, he lost to Djokovic, and in the last two years, lost five consecutive times to an ageing and in-form Roger Federer. Nine Slam final losses out of 11, and no World No. 1 ranking to boot.
Being Andy Murray is difficult. We wonder why that permanent scowl has carved itself into a lethargic face; we wonder why becoming a father hasn’t made him more “human”; we wonder why, after winning two majors with coach Ivan Lendl, he parted ways in 2014. We wondered, but Murray wondered even more.
By the time Wimbledon 2016 began, Murray was already on his way to becoming the greatest ever No. 2 of all time. Here is a man who has won a lot of titles, has occasionally been unbeatable on hard courts and grass, has raised his clay game to impressive heights, and yet, unlike the considerably inferior likes of Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt and Juan Carlos Ferrero, this man had never quite scaled the top of the world rankings. Life can be unfair, but not so very unfair. He even had an Olympic Gold medal to flaunt, but tell that to Djokovic – a man so far ahead in the rankings that, at one point this year, the combined points tally of Federer and Murray was lesser than Djokovic’s total. If you think Lionel Messi has had it tough with Argentina, or that before Sunday night Cristiano Ronaldo had it tough with Portugal (both had never won world titles, until Portugal won Euro 2016 this week), then think about Andy Murray. All the skill and determination in the world, good enough to be No. 1 in any other era, but here he was – with two majors, a medal and nothing more to show yet.
Andy Murray is not quitting though. He got back Lendl, reached his third consecutive Slam final of the year, and three years after he won his first Wimbledon title, he won his second on Sunday by defeating Canadian Milos Raonic. This was the first time in his life he was facing anybody but Federer and Djokovic in a Slam final. And, as expected, he made the most of it – proving that, even as No. 2, there is nobody his equal. He swept past the troubled Nick Kyrgios in the fourth round before suffering from a hiccup against Jo-Wilfred Tsonga in the quarters, demolished Tomas Berdych in the semis and then Raonic – a man he should thank – in the final. Roanic had defeated Sam Querrey (who had defeated Djokovic in the third round) and Roger Federer in a semifinal epic. This cleared the path for Murray, who, many suspected, would have tanked against Djokovic in the final. On form, though, he was virtually unbeatable, though it’s never about his ability. He remains the only player this year (apart from Serena Williams) to reach all three finals, and few would bet against him sweeping the hard-court season, irrespective of Djokovic’s form.
He still isn’t the best on the planet, but is now only 800 points behind the best. That won’t count for much, though, given that, finally, in 12 attempts, he has won his third major title, his second Wimbledon (as many as Djokovic), and will head into Rio defending his Olympic title. Murray should have won a lot more by age 29, but then again, he has won three more titles than one should in an era where three of the greatest male tennis players of all time (Djokovic, Nadal, Federer) have reached every major final since 2003 except the 2005 Australian Open Final (Hewitt v/s Safin) and the 2014 US Open Final (Cilic v/s Nishikori). Both these finals were false dawns of the end of an era. Murray will also find relief that he is ahead now of Stan Wawrinka, another contemporary who had managed to win as many slams as Murray before last week – by defeating Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in the finals. Murray is yet to do that, and may perhaps never defeat Djokovic in a final again (after 2013), but he will be happy to rule the roost for a week here, and another week there.
Britain has finally found a reason to cheer again. Its old hero is its new hero, at least till the US Open begins in August, where Murray will gun for his fourth major, four long years after he won his first.