Friday, October 12, 2012

Murray’s Finest Hour

By Angus Saul

The U.S. Open final of 2008 was something to behold. It was a masterclass in how to completely outplay your opponent, from start to finish, not giving them the luxury of half a chance the entire match. Roger Federer hardly broke sweat as he raced to the 13th grand slam title of his career, bringing him within one title of Pete Sampras' impressive record of 14.

Andy Murray, on the other hand, was left bewildered. Completely out of his depth for the entire match, it was obvious he needed to re-evaluate his career, where it was headed, and how on earth he was going to win a slam.

Up to this point, he had looked a promising player, tipped by many to be Britain's first male grand slam winner in 72 years. The way he disposed of Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals the day before was nothing short of spectacular. Sure, it was a 4 setter, but Nadal was running hot — straight off the back of winning a fourth French Open title and his first Wimbledon.

However, it had always been said that almost all multiple grand slam winners win their first by the time they are 21, and many do so earlier. Federer won Wimbledon at 21, Nadal won the French Open at 19, and Novak Djokovic took the Australian Open crown at age 20. Murray was already 21 by the time of the 2008 U.S. Open, and so whilst it was encouraging, people were hoping he could have gone one step further.

He went into the 2009 as hot favorite for the title, having won the prestigious Capitala World Tennis Championship, an invitational event in Abu Dhabi, where only 6 of the top 10 players in the world are elected to play. This would be Murray's final major before turning 22, so hopes were high.

He made a brilliant start, only to falter when faced with Spaniard Fernando Verdasco. At the time, it was a huge shock: the favorite had been knocked out in the fourth round. However, it was only realized a week later when Verdasco turned out to be arguably the player of the tournament, taking world No. 1 Rafael Nadal to five sets at the semifinal stage before bowing out. If anyone ever had a breakout year, 2009 was to be Verdasco's.

Either way, this did little do dissuade the feeling that Murray should have done more. The French Open, too, came and went with Murray having had very little impact, and when Murray failed to get past Roddick in the 2009 semifinals of Wimbledon, people began asking a few questions.

Surely that was Murray's best chance of reaching the Wimbledon final? Rafael Nadal injured, and so therefore no-one blocking Murray's path to the final. Roddick played a blinder, possibly the best tournament of his career, but Murray, who had a brilliant head-to-head record against the American should have done better, throwing away opportunity after opportunity on the American's serve.

Where was the hope now? He crashed out early in the 2009 U.S. Open, and despite playing brilliantly in the year end tournament in London, crashed out to eventual champion Nikolay Davydenko. 2010 brought fresh hope, the Aussie Open final, with him losing in straight sets to Federer again, and coming up short to Nadal in the Wimbledon semifinal.

Again the U.S. Open — said to be his best chance of winning a major — came and went with an early exit. Why did he keep going on about winning the U.S. Open? It clearly wasn't his best surface.

2011 saw a dramatic change in Murray's career. Much of it was spent without a full-time coach, and things appeared to be going well. Australian Open final for the second year in a row, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open semifinals. If that wasn't progress, what was?

But still going the final step proved elusive. This was the point where Murray hired Ivan Llendl as full-time coach. No one had lost more grand slam finals and still gone on to win a major, so it seemed the perfect match. Murray's taciturn nature mirrored Lendl to a "T," and Murray would have a coach whose personal experience he could draw on.

2012 got off to a roaring start. Murray was stepping up to the baseline, hitting aggressively, and taking the fight to his opponent, rather than withdrawing into himself and reverting to the passive counter-punching which comes so naturally to him.

He cruised to the title in Brisbane, Australia, and cruised to the semifinals of the Australian Open. He lost out in a marathon battle to Novak Djokovic. Another point here or there could have completely turned the match around. After the match, Murray said that in spite of the loss, he had closed the gap between the world No. 4 and the world No. 1.

How times have changed. This time in the marathon match, it was Murray who proved the stronger both mentally and physically, outlasting the same opponent, but this time in the final of a grand slam.

The maiden major has not quite sunk in yet for some, but at least in Dunblane, where Murray was born and raised, euphoria is rife. It is not every day, nor every decade, that a British man wins a grand slam singles title, and so when it does happen, it is a very special event, and one that will not be forgotten in a hurry.

There have been a lot of dark, cold, and bitter moments in Andy Murray's career, but that moment, as Djokovic fired a forehand return beyond the baseline is surely, and will surely be, his finest.

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