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Tennis

Andy’s mountains: not the year of Murray, but Murray’s year

AP Photo / Charles Krupa

Andy Murray’s career has long been a walking contradiction, but usually in moments of defeat.

This week in Rio de Janeiro and this summer on tennis courts, Murray’s career remains as contradictory as ever, but this time, in moments of triumph.

Rudyard Kipling would approve.

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Points of emphasis mean so much to the many ways we discuss the moments of our lives… and to the ways in which we emotionally and intellectually perceive the words of others.

When a bad match (or at best, an average match bereft of inspiring quality) unfolds, I am fond of saying that Player X didn’t win, but s/he avoided losing. It’s a paradox. It seems contradictory on the surface, but it owns a complicated, layered truth which is easier to perceive the more one lives — and absorbs the fullness of — this immensely fascinating human life we get to try out.

You can probably grasp that “contradiction” will be the theme of Andy Murray’s second straight Summer Olympic gold medal championship, won over a gallant and spiritually wise Juan Martin del Potro in four punishing sets on Sunday in Brazil. The meaning and the memory of the moment cannot be sufficiently conveyed without touching on this notion of ever-present contradiction.

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So many simple declarations of fact can seem like put-downs and diminishments of Andy Murray, but they’re just that: declarations of fact.

Murray won his first Olympic gold in 2012 on the grounds of The All-England Club after his opponent in the gold medal match, Roger Federer, played a 19-17 third set in his semifinal. It’s very easy to arrive at the assumption that mentioning such a fact means Murray’s accomplishment is somehow less than what it is, or was, or should be. No, it’s merely a detail which is extremely difficult to avoid mentioning.

Murray made relatively quick work of a man named Novak Djokovic in the other semifinal. By doing so, he put himself in an advantageous position in that gold medal clash four years ago. He was the best player at that tournament, more efficient and consistent in the later rounds than anyone else.

That notion of efficiency includes Federer’s 19-17 semifinal in the story; it hardly excludes it.

Fast-forward four years to Rio.

Murray struggled in the middle rounds of this tournament against Fabio Fognini and Steve Johnson, needing narrow third-set escapes to survive, but he dismantled Kei Nishikori in an early-match semifinal on Saturday, gaining extra rest for the gold medal finale and getting off the court much earlier than del Potro and his semifinal opponent, Rafael Nadal. When Delpo required over three hours to outlast Rafa, the table was set in a manner all-too-akin to 2012 at the site of Wimbledon: A long semifinal involving Delpo had put Murray in position to win a coveted high-stakes championship.

These are basic realities of tennis, not conspiracy theories or desperate fringe arguments. Player A makes his way smoothly through a semifinal played a few hours earlier than the second one. Player B not only plays a later match but needs a lot more time and effort in which to do the deed. Player A wins the final on Sunday. It happens all the time.

Xinhua/Imago/Icon Sportswire

Xinhua/Imago/Icon Sportswire

It happened in the Rome Masters earlier this year. Murray played an earlybird semifinal against Lucas Pouille and won it in no time flat, while Djokovic played a late-night semifinal against Kei Nishikori and needed a final-set tiebreaker to win a taxing, prolonged contest. Djokovic gave a full effort on Sunday, playing with typical passion and professional commitment, but his body and game weren’t finely-tuned. Murray took advantage — no asterisks, but let’s not pretend the surrounding details were irrelevant.

This is where we return to the theme of “contradiction.”

On the 35 (!) occasions when Andy Murray lost a major final or semifinal (17 — 8 finals, 9 semifinals), or a Masters final or semifinal (18 — 6 finals, 12 semifinals), guess how many times a member of the so-called “Big Three” stopped him? Again, this is out of 35 occasions.

Don’t think you have to come up with the exact number. If you’re within three on either side, you have a good sense of the situation.

Okay, time’s up.

The answer: 33.

The only exceptions: the 2009 Wimbledon semis (Andy Roddick) and the 2006 Rogers Cup/Canada Masters semis (Richard Gasquet). That’s it.

Consider that the Big Three have won 125 major or Masters titles (43 majors, 82 Masters) and have reached many dozens of additional finals.

Consider that Federer (23) and Djokovic (14) reeled off insane consecutive-semifinal streaks at the majors, and equally if not more impressive (10, 8, 6) streaks of major finals.

Consider that Rafael Nadal is the greatest clay-courter ever, a man who ruined many Murray marches at the French Open and Monte Carlo.

Consider that Rafa beat Murray in the semifinals of the French, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2011, a constant nemesis on tour at the biggest events.

In a quote-unquote “normal” era, when players often succeeded, but not with the machine-like consistency of this era, a player of Murray’s caliber would not have had to face superior opponents in so many semifinals or finals. He is, by many historical measurements, a remarkably and improbably unlucky player. He played tennis better than many of his historical peers, but had far fewer trophies to show for his excellence. The quality of his play and the luster of his resume contradicted each other to a considerable degree.

In 2016 in general; at the Olympic Games in particular; and at this tournament as a fresh and even more specific example, one could quite reasonably say that Andy Murray didn’t necessarily get lucky, but that he avoided the bad luck which has trailed him like a cartoon raincloud in his career.

It’s very much akin to the “he didn’t win, but he avoided losing” dynamic outlined above.

Xinhua/Imago/Icon Sportswire

Xinhua/Imago/Icon Sportswire

For once — and just as was the case at Wimbledon a month ago — Murray didn’t have to face a single Big Three foe en route to a massive title. As in the 2012 Olympics and as in the 2013 Wimbledon tournament, a long semifinal involving del Potro gave Murray an edge in a subsequent final, one he didn’t waste. (Delpo lost to Djokovic in a 4-hour, 43-minute 2013 Wimbledon semi, and Djokovic looked toasted on Sunday, much as Federer did after a 4-hour, 26-minute Olympic semifinal at Centre Court Wimbledon in 2012.)

Noting these basic details isn’t a diminishment of Murray. More to the point, noting these details — as though they are important (and they are — it’s how one arrives at their importance which matters) — shows how rarely these kinds of breaks have fallen in the Scotsman’s lap.

What’s also worth pointing out: Murray — hugely consistent for the most part, just not as consistent as his foremost rivals in this ironically-named Golden Era of men’s tennis — would also toss in a loss to a Stan Wawrinka or Kevin Anderson at the U.S. Open. It took him awhile to become a next-level player on clay. Murray has gotten better over time at taking advantage of favorable draws. He’s worked hard to make himself less prone to early-round upsets at Masters-level tour events, and this Olympic tournament — with its best-of-three format through the semis, with matches played every day in the latter rounds — more closely resembled a Masters event than a major.

Murray came close to squandering this massive opportunity against Fognini, but he didn’t. The narrow mid-round escape — something every great player learns how to do on a consistent basis — once again paved the way to riches for an elite tennis player. In Murray’s case, his Houdini paved the way to streets of Olympic gold… which creates a few more contradictions as the tennis world says goodbye to Rio.

Xinhua/Imago/Icon Sportswire

Xinhua/Imago/Icon Sportswire

After years of being overshadowed by Djokovic, Nadal and Federer, Andrew Barron Murray will almost certainly finish with more Olympic singles gold medals than each of them. Maybe Djokovic can win gold in 2020 and 2024. Maybe Nadal can somehow win gold in 2020, but that seems mighty unlikely. It’s such an exquisite plot twist within the larger scope of this era’s evolution.

And yet…

… if I told you that a player would:

  • Win multiple Wimbledons;
  • Snap home-nation droughts of more than 75 years as a major champion, Wimbledon champion, and Davis Cup champion;
  • Win multiple Olympic gold medals;
  • Win 12 Masters titles; and
  • Make the semis or better in a major or Masters tournament 50 times…

… you would rightly conclude that such a career should tower over his contemporaries.

Andy Murray has repeatedly done things that British tennis players hadn’t done since Fred Perry in the 1930s. He’s created his own new history in South America, climbing these two golden “Andy’s Mountains” at the Summer Games. He has checked so many boxes on the list of “things memorably great tennis players do.” Yet, he has been — and will always be — remembered as the fourth-best player of his time.

That’s a contradiction of a negative sort… but not entirely. Murray has been overshadowed, an unfortunate reality of his career, but oh, what happy and sweet overshadowing. To be this accomplished, to be this successful, to own such pronounced historical resonance on a personal level, and on a national level — Andy Murray bathes in a tub of golden riches even as his peers exist on a more elevated place in the tennis pantheon. We would all like to be overshadowed the way Andy Murray has been. It makes his Olympic superiority relative to the Big Three a somehow fitting reward for all those years of trying to climb the mountain but falling short. At the Olympics, the best view is from Andy’s Mountains, not anyone else’s.

A final contradiction before closing:

This is not the year of Andy Murray. It’s still the year of Novak Djokovic on the ATP Tour. It’s Djokovic who won the Indian Wells-Miami double. It’s Djokovic who won two of three majors. It’s Djokovic who won the Novak Slam and captured four majors in succession on three different surfaces, an unprecedented feat in men’s tennis history. It’s Djokovic who completed the career set at the majors, winning the French Open to capture his elusive claycourt major. The year still belongs to Djokovic, and it still will in a larger historical sense even if Murray wins the U.S. Open.

It’s the year of Novak Djokovic…

… but in this context of contradiction, it’s Andy Murray’s year.

Djokovic is still the big — or should we say, bigger — dog, but this is now, indisputably, Murray’s finest year as a professional tennis player if viewed through the prism of an overall collection of accomplishments.

It’s true that in 2012, Murray won his first Olympic gold and his first major — if “first times” and “breakthroughs” are more important than subsequent achievements, you could say 2012 trumps 2016. Fair enough. Yet, in terms of a full box set of triumphs, this is Murray’s masterwork.

The man has three major finals in his bag with a chance for four; a first French Open final; a clay Masters win over Djokovic; a Wimbledon title; and now a second Olympic gold medal.

It is as though — after Stan Wawrinka won the 2015 French Open to tie him for major titles — Andy Murray has spent 2016 pounding home the point that he exists on a different plane. The 2016 sports season has shown us that miracles can happen (Leicester City); that Cleveland really can win a championship in American sports (thanks, Lebron James); and that yes, Andy Murray really is a supremely elite tennis player.

I realize I haven’t said as much as one ought to about Juan Martin del Potro — slap a guilty charge on me if you want — but:

  1. I’ll write an Olympic wrap-up in which I can address him a little more.
  2. I know that by beating Djokovic and Nadal, it could reasonably be said that his tournament as a whole was more impressive than Murray’s, a contradiction in itself.
  3. Writing more about Delpo after this final would only serve to relegate Andy Murray to second place, a place he’s finished so many times in his career.

It was and is time to give Andy Murray first place.

He’s earned it again — maybe by getting the luck which has so often eluded him in the past, but in a way which magnifies him and his achievements.

He deserves magnification — not just after these Olympics, but for what he’s done his entire career in an era which is so curiously called “Golden.”

That’s the nature of the Olympic medal Andy Murray wears today — and for the second time in his blessed tennis life.

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