The Grand Slams have a knack for flipping the narrative. Novak Djokovic won four of five Slams heading into the 2012 French Open, then only took one of the next nine, but then scooped up six of the next eight. Rafael Nadal faced questions of whether he was done (again) when injured in 2012, then returned to make four major finals out of five, winning three. And since regaining her form from serious health issues, Serena Williams has twice faced losing her last active Slam. The first time, she won the 2014 U.S. Open to start a run of four straight, and the second was on Saturday, when she tied Steffi Graf’s Open Era-record 22 Slams.
All that is to say: considering his back surgery and the dominance of his peers, it would not have been unreasonable at many points to think that Andy Murray, even despite getting back to No. 2 in the world and still going deep into majors, had already lifted his last Grand Slam trophy. On Sunday though, history reversed again, as Murray broke his three year Slam drought and won his home Slam for the second time, casually beating first-time major finalist Milos Raonic 6-4, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (2), facing break points in just one service game all match, which came when he was already leading by two sets.
In fitting fashion, Murray came out victorious by outlasting, though with a twist. “Muzz” often prevails by wearing down his opponent (think this year’s French Open versus Richard Gasquet, where the brittle Frenchman’s legs were gone by the third set), but this time he did it by outlasting his peers in the tournament itself.
Djokovic was worn out both physically and mentally following his French Open victory, Roger Federer was obviously not at his pre-injury level, and though not a top contender in London recently, Nadal missed grass season rehabbing his wrist, leading to Murray dealing with the pressure of being a prohibitive favorite at a Grand Slam for the first time ever, a test he passed with flying colors. Other than a five-set quarterfinal with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (and save for Djokovic in 2011, every men’s Wimbledon champion since 2007 has needed a five-set win along the way), Murray took all his matches in straight sets.
The heavy favorite coming in, Murray took this meeting much more convincingly than the Queen’s final weeks back, in which Raonic led by a set and a break before short-circuiting. This time around, Raonic had played 14 sets of tennis in his previous three rounds, including his first career comeback from two sets (on Manic Monday over David Goffin) and an emotional five-set semifinal over Federer.
The tough part for the Canadian in matchups against the elite is that their games are complete and rounded, whereas his is not. The serve is his one main advantage and the amount of gas left in his tank (or lack thereof) was a reminder of how hard it is for guys his size, the 6″5′ and up club, to win seven best-of-five matches over two weeks:
Raonic average second-serve speeds by round at Wimbledon:
112 mph in 1st round
— Carl Bialik (@CarlBialik) July 10, 2016
Murray, while not without feeling the pressure of the moment himself, outclassed Raonic in just about every way, making him look awkward and misplaced time and time again on net approaches with dazzling, dipping passing shots. While Raonic did well to only get broken once, the tiebreaks – often his territory – were noncompetitive.
When the tennis itself is less than stellar on the whole, it’s often more constructive to focus on the big picture, and thankfully, there’s a lot to chew on when it comes to Murray, who has one of the most unique résumés in sports history, thanks to the just-as-unique format of tennis.
Team sports are like movies. There are mini-crescendos along the way, but ultimately, everything is building toward that one climactic event: the Super Bowl, with no guarantee of ever getting back, or a tight playoff series, where the direction of both franchises could be decided by the outcome.
Tennis is more like a TV show. Perhaps the final summit is a bit more momentous in a team sport (like the difference in budget between movies and television), but with more moments to savor, like the dozen-plus top tournaments on each tour, the slow burn of the relationships and the repartee are more personal.
For example, despite being an extremely passionate basketball fan and an enthusiast of sports history, I can’t recall any particularly meaningful game between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. I could, however, rattle off a dozen matches between any two of the Big Four.
That’s cherry-picking a bit, but the point is that the format of tennis guarantees a higher volume of meaningful encounters between the legends of the sport (a benefit of that is putting less reactionary weight in any one meeting, but that’s a discussion too skewed away from tennis to be had in this space). This all brings us to Murray, and the surprise generated from noting facts such as this:
Andy Murray now has as many Grand Slam finals as John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander. More SF+QF than them too. #Wimbledon
— Trenton Jocz (@TrentonJocz) July 8, 2016
That Murray’s Grand Slam counter was stuck on “2” for so long skewed his place among the all-time greats. Matt will be covering this is in greater detail in his tournament wrap-up, so I won’t step on his toes too much, but consider Murray’s accomplishments against other peers:
*Murray’s seasons assume top 5/top 10 for 2016 (virtual locks) but not finishing first due to remaining behind Djokovic in the year-to-date ranks.
Murray is also top 10 in the Open Era for total Grand Slam wins, wins against top 10 opponents, hardcourt titles and grass titles (four way tie for fifth there). He’s clearly still behind McEnroe, but in just looking at Slams, one would think Murray is miles behind the others, even Courier. With two majors to his name, that opinion was understandable. Now that he’s just one off Courier while besting him in everything else despite playing in the Golden Era against likely the three greatest men to pick up a racket, Murray needs to be thought off in a bit different sense. Elevating him a tier or two up is especially food for thought given that he’s clearly got productive seasons left at 29 years old, even if those don’t present many strong chances into his 30s to boost that Slam count.
Though not for everyone (Andy Roddick not getting a second Slam, potentially Victoria Azarenka, etc.), tennis often makes good. This Wimbledon, with a kind draw and an opponent making his Championship Sunday debut, this was Andy Murray being repaid for always running into Djokovic in Australia or Federer and Nadal at Wimbledon. Was it an easier opportunity? Certainly, but the all-timers take that opportunity and capitalize.
One of the joys of watching an aging champion (Murray’s only 29, but that’s on the older side, even as tennis has skewed older) is watching him/her grow and mature. Back in 2013 when he broke the curse at SW19, Andy Murray was more like Britain’s son, still figuring out where he fit in the greater conversation. Now, he’s his own man. That first title was for them as much as it was him. This one feels much more intimate, as his face lights up when talking about his daughter sleeping through the night during a brief greeting with William and Kate or Benedict Cumberbatch. His relationship with Ivan Lendl used to feel paternal. On their second go-round, he’s more of a helping hand, a steadying presence.
After the match, Murray said in press:
"I don't mind failing. Failing is okay." -Andy Murray just now, with what should probably be his epitaph. #Wimbledon
— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) July 10, 2016
The key distinction is the difference is failing and failure. In both a positive and negative way, the former is a big part of his legacy. The latter certainly is not.
If we think of how each of the Big Four will be remembered, Federer is the most obvious. He’s the magician, the artist, the man who put tennis back on the map at its lowest point. Nadal is not only the problem solver and the fighter (or rather the sufferer, as he might prefer), he has maximized his career like no other. Djokovic, almost without weakness at his peak, showed, with so much talk of Raonic’s generation being unable to escape the shadow of their elders, that the best can elevate in spite of their competition.
Between the era he’s in (“Very few people in sport can claim to be the best at it. Of course I want to get to number one. But second-best is OK for now,” he said recently), the back surgery, the occasional self-inflicted outbursts, the “ahhh, ahhh, ahhh” noise he lets out while scrambling crosscourt on a full sprint to retrieve a shot, there’s one word that sticks out for Andy Murray: persevere.