Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Britain’s Golden Boy

By Angus Saul

For years, Andy Murray has been labelled "the best player not to win a slam," and that hasn't changed. Some have simply branded him "unlucky," and, had he not lived in arguably the toughest era in tennis, he would have won several by now.

But Roger Federer has taken 17 slams since 2003, Rafael Nadal has taken 11, and Novak Djokovic has taken 5. What is worse is that Nadal and Djokovic are close to Murray's age, and won't be going away for some time. Federer, now 30, should have faded years ago, but is suddenly back to his best.

Murray was also hugely unlucky to have reached four grand slam finals, and to find both an experienced and an in-form Federer three times, and on the other occasion, he met Djokovic, in the best form of his life, right at the beginning of his almost unprecedented 44 match-winning streak.

But Rafael Nadal has been the real bane of Murray's career. Nadal and Murray have been in the same half of the draw in 20 out of the past 22 majors, which means Murray has consistently come up against the second best player of last decade, and joint best player of this decade, an incredible number of times. Murray has reached a career-high of world No. 2 before, and guess who was No. 1? If you guessed Nadal; good guess.

So the odds don't look good for Murray. The usual rule is: if you are going to win multiple slams, you should win your first before you are 21. Federer managed his first shortly after turning 21, and has run away with the lion's share of slams since. Rafa Nadal won his first at 19, and won one a year for three years before widening his horizons. Djokovic made the big step at 20 at the 2008 Australian Open, but it took him four long years to shift the tag "One Slam Wonder."

Murray, on the other hand, is now 25. He has been to four major finals, and in his first three, lost in straight sets. In those three, he was outplayed from start to finish, and never really brought his A-game.

That all changed at this year's Wimbledon. In his first Wimbledon final in front of a home crowd, he produced his best tennis and completely outplayed Federer in the first set, breaking twice, and taking the first set 7-5.

He maintained this excellent pace, kept his foot on the gas and again outplayed Federer for much of the second set, the Swiss barely hanging on to his serve and just keeping in touch. By no means was he going toe-to-toe with this newly fired-up and aggressive Murray — the Murray Brits had been crying out to see for years — Federer was clinging on for dear life.

But when it really mattered, Federer found a slice of luck as Murray served to stay in the second set at 6-5 to take it to 30-30, whereupon two truly incredible points from the Swiss gifted him the second set. Federer had done the impossible, and done what all great champions do. He won when he wasn't at his best, and even having been outplayed for two sets, he still managed to edge the second to even the playing field.

After the roof closed, Murray's chances of winning all but vanished. Federer, though a true all-courter, relishes playing indoors, and is one of the great indoor specialists. For the remaining two sets, Murray hung in there valiantly, but it was obvious Federer had the upper hand and was playing by far the better tennis now. The Fed-Express steamed onwards and took the next to sets to win in emphatic style, hardly putting a foot wrong.

In the post-match interviews, Murray, clearly crushed by yet another oh-so-close match that inevitably ended in his losing, was reduced to tears. He managed to remain gracious in defeat, and even brought a few chuckles from the crowd as he opened with, "Well, I'm getting closer."

One set in a grand slam final was indeed a lot better than he had previously managed, although people should not forget Murray had set point against Federer in the third set of the 2010 Australian Open, during the huge tie-break (which Federer won 13-11), as Murray put a routine forehand winner into the net. But nearly getting a set and actually closing one out are very different things. Murray now knew he could close out a set in a major final.

And that was all it took. Murray had been fortunate this time around at Wimbledon that his usual nemesis, Nadal, had been knocked out in the second round by the unseeded, unheralded Lukas Rosol, in an epic five-setter. How would Murray fare at the Olympics? Same surface, same venue. With no disrespect to Tsonga, Nadal would be a stiffer opponent.

But Nadal's injury woes meant he would not compete at the Olympics. The Spaniard chosen to bear his nation's flag would not be present in London for the Games. Good signs for Murray? No. On this occasion, he would be drawn in Djokovic's half of the draw. Great.

At the beginning of the year, I was asked if Djokovic's dominance would continue? Would he win a career Grand Slam with victory at the French Open? Would he win a calendar Grand Slam, winning all four majors in one calendar year? Or could he possibly defy all odds and become the first man to win a calendar Golden Slam, which involves winning all four majors,and Olympic gold, all in one year.

My answer to most of these questions was a simple "no." 2011 was his year, without a shadow of a doubt, and towards the end of the season, he had lost steam. Yes, it was possible he could win the French Open and complete a career grand slam; he is, after all, a superb clay-courter. But would he win all four in a year? No. Would he win Olympic gold as well? I doubted it.

At the time, I claimed Murray would have a good chance of winning at the Olympics because of home-crowd support and it being a best-of-three-sets event. At the time, I was speaking more out of hope than expectation. At the time, I was also downplaying the value of the Olympics. At the time, I was unaware that although matches were best-of-three up until the semis, the final would be played out in a best-of-five format — the same as a grand slam.

When the time came, it looked as though Murray would fight the good fight, but ultimately crumble against a better opponent. But Murray played well and produced his best ever tennis to see off a baffled Djokovic 7-5 7-5 in the semis, the Serbian overwhelmed by both the occasion and by the sheer ferocity of Murray's groundstrokes and the pin-point accuracy of his volleys.

The semifinals were surely the highlight of Murray's tournament. He surely couldn't overcome the player who delivered the last crushing defeat on the same court, in the same atmosphere, in the same best-of-five-set format, all that just three weeks previously.

But he did. And in what style! From 2-2 in the first set, Murray thrashed Federer to deal him one of the worst defeats of his career. Murray broke twice in both the first and second sets, running away with them, 6-2, 6-1. Federer got himself back into contention in the third, but was broken at 4-4 to leave Murray to serve out for the championship. The 25-year-old Scot served out and took home the Olympic gold medal.

Although the Olympics are worth fewer ranking points than a grand slam event, and the format is shorter — the Olympics only come around every four years — and therefore Olympic gold medals are something to be highly treasured. Murray gave this event the respect it deserved, and he treated it as though it were a grand slam. For his efforts, he received Olympic gold.

Where there has been doubt in his mind before, there is now only confidence. He has won on the big stage and has shown he can dismantle any of the top players with ease, should he play the right game. Britain has been crying out for years for Murray to demonstrate a champion's qualities, and he has finally delivered.

In his youth, Murray's blasé approach to interviews won him few friends among what should have been his home fans — they were still mourning the loss of the much loved "Tiger Tim" Henman — and his grumpy on-court demeanor and passive style of play has been picked at and scrutinized for years.

It has been a long, and at times very dark tunnel for Murray, but the Olympic torch and Olympic gold have provided a light at the end of the tunnel. The question is no longer, "Will Murray win a slam?", but "Which one?"

His valiant display at Wimbledon in July, followed by an emotional few words showed the often sullen Scot had a soft side. As he choked on his words, thanking the "amazing" crowd for the way they helped and not hindered him, he won the love of the British public at last. And now, to show such resilience to come back and win Olympic gold — well, he really has become Britain's golden boy.

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