The all-consuming powerful world no. 1 forever, Novak Djokovic, relinquished his spot at the top for the first time in more than two years, to hand it over to perennial no. 2 and bridesmaid-no-more, Andy Murray – who continues to redefine British sporting excellence, making sure there are no more “first Brit in 1298727 years” headers anymore.
It’s not the fact that he achieved this in perhaps the toughest era of men’s tennis, but because he wasn’t expected to, for so very long. It’s because he wasn’t no. 1 for so long, and didn’t look likely to be there ever, destined to end up as the greatest no. 2 in the men’s game. Was that title better, or is the title of being a just-about-decent no. 1? Murray will take the latter; the former is laced with tragedy and almost-ness, which no athlete really wants to embrace after coming so close for so long.
Here are three things we can learn from Murray’s against-all-odds, determined and slow rise to the top of tennis:
BE AN ALL-ROUNDER
It’s no coincidence that the year Andy Murray conquered the clay courts once and for all (Rome Masters, French Open final) is also his career-best season. He was never known for his ability on red clay, but began rising under the tutelage of former French Open champion Amelie Mauresmo, who parted ways with him after the tournament, just at the right time after completing his evolution on the one surface he was lacking in. He could have very easily given up early on in his career and called himself a grass-courter or hard-courter (he has been up there on both surfaces), just like many Americans have over the years. But Murray wanted more, and he knew he wouldn’t achieve it without being able to win titles on all surfaces. This is no more the 1990s or early 2000s where forsaking one surface will still guarantee a no. 1 ranking or enough titles to be called an all-time great. Murray is perhaps the most improved clay-court player of this era.
NEVER GIVE UP
Many remember the lanky teenager captivating fellow Scotsman Mr. James Bond’s (Sean Connery) attention back in 2005 during a third-round Wimbledon 5-setter against then-giant David Nalbandian. Murray lacked the fitness and stamina to overcome the senior opponent, but had demonstrated enough verve and grit to prove that he’d be Wimbledon’s darling for the next decade. He then suffered in 2009, after being knocked out by has-been Andy Roddick in the semifinal just when he was on the verge of his first final starting as the favourite in the match. This would have broken someone like Tim Henman, who refused to go past the semifinals all career, but Murray, again, wanted more. He kept at it, and kept at it, and watched as Federer racked up record titles, watched as Nadal rose and fell to his own body, watched as Djokovic created a great rivalry with Nadal, watched as all three took turns dominating tennis, and stayed right behind the lead pack – as if her were a Tour de France peleton-chaser. Finally, in 2012, after again losing a Slam final, this time at Wimbledon, he returned to the same court a month later to win the gold medal at the Olympics against the same opponent – and the floodgates opened. A month after that, he won his first Slam title in New York, before, again, Djokovic took over tennis for the next few years and defeated Murray repeatedly in finals. He came back in 2016, though, on the back of watching Djokovic have the single-greatest season in men’s tennis. And he just never gave up. He is now at the front, after being a chaser all his life.
It was only at Wimbledon 2012 that Andy Murray became human in many fans’ eyes. He shed tears and showed how much the loss to Federer (again) hurt him. For the first time, he expressed himself, instead of being the dour, sour-faced and grumpy young athlete numbed under the leadership of what looked like a matriarchal family. But those tears broke the wall he had built, after which the titles began coming in every year. He was choked up, and for once, many began wondering how heartbroken a young boy like him must be to lose repeatedly to players slightly better than him. There was only so much he could take. Since then, Murray has smiled a little more, gotten married, become a husband and a father (this year), and practiced harder in a manner that tells us that his expressions aren’t only left on the courts.