Andy Murray Does It Again

They said:

He would never win a Grand Slam after finishing runner-up for the fourth time in a row.

He did:

Win the 2012 US Open.

They said:

He would never win Wimbledon.

He did:

Win Wimbledon in 2013 and 2016.

They said:

He would never win multiple Grand Slams.

He did:

Win 3 Grand Slams and counting.

They said:

He would never become world number 1.

He did:

Become world number 1 in November 2016.

They said:

He hadn’t defeated any top 10 players on his unbeaten run to world number 1.

He did:

Beat the world number 7 (now 6), 5, 4, 3, and 2 in the space of one week to win the World Tour Finals undefeated.

They said:

He wouldn’t beat Novak Djokovic in the World Tour final because he was too fatigued.

He did:

Beat him in straight sets 6-3, 6-4.

They say a lot of things.

He’s Andy Murray.

Proving naysayers wrong since 2012 and counting.

 

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Teenage Kicks and Overtaking Tricks: Max Verstappen Thrills in Brazil

Never tell a teenager what to do.  It’s the surest way of guaranteeing they will do the exact opposite.  Toto Wolff, head honcho of Mercedes, clearly doesn’t have children.  If he did, he would have been aware of the contrariness of teenagers and might sensibly have refrained from making a phone call to Max Verstappen’s dad to have a ‘chat’ about him.  Wolff vehemently denied asking Daddy, a former F1 driver himself, to order his boy to stay away from his precious Mercedes drivers, as the drivers’ title race reaches its denouement.  Or perhaps more pertinently, to stay away from his precious Nico, bearing in mind Max’s Red Bull has been nowhere near the front-running Lewis Hamilton in recent weeks, but has got a little too close for comfort with Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes (like two weeks ago at the Mexican Grand Prix).  After all, fearless teenage boy racers can be dangerously unpredictable as well as contrary.

Toto may have refuted the allegation that his phone call to Verstappen Senior was about warning off his son, but the way Junior was gunning for Rosberg during Sunday’s Brazilian Grand Prix, the penultimate race of 2016, the youngster appeared to believe it.  He was racing as if it was he, and not the Mercedes drivers, who had a point to prove.  And it was his timely intrepid and audacious racing endeavour that would end up rescuing a race that threatened to dissolve into a literal damp squib.  An unceasing deluge of rain had created a chaos of crashes, safety cars and red flags that caused endless delays, stoppages and a paucity of racing, frustrating the Brazilian crowd into unashamedly voicing their disapproval with a chorus of boos (remember that familiar derisive sound from the Olympics?) and dismissive thumbs down gestures redolent of disapproving Roman emperors.

However, as soon as the racing finally got under way again for the third and final time, Max was hovering on second placed Rosberg’s tail like a seasoned hunter, and in a serendipitous moment as an extra shower spurt from Hamilton’s car spray conveniently blinded Rosberg, Junior grabbed his chance and swept past the championship leader before he could cry ‘water!’  Max got as close as one second behind to the race leader, until Hamilton stepped on the gas and produced a couple of fastest laps to increase the gap to two seconds, before Verstappen suffered a dramatic mishap on the straight that looked for all the world to have derailed his challenge.  He appeared to hit the white line on the track edge which sent his car into a half-spin.  Yet, somehow, Verstappen managed to regain control of his car and avoid hitting the wall, without losing second place to the fast closing Rosberg.  A remarkable save!

While there has, clearly, never been any doubt about Max Verstappen’s raw driving talent, doubts about Rosberg’s ability to drive in treacherous conditions were once again confirmed as he was outshone, not only by Max, but also by his own team mate, Hamilton, who was cruising in front on a waterlogged track as though he were in a rowing boat rather than a racing car.  Of course, Rosberg is in the fortuitous position of not having to win or even come second.  A third here would have ensured he would win the title in Abu Dhabi by finishing second.  In the event, a fatuous tyre strategy from Red Bull (that might have made a cynic wonder whether Toto Wolff had also made a phone call to Red Bull chief Christian Horner) ruined any possibility of Verstappen relegating him to third in Brazil and then repeating the feat in Abu Dhabi to throw open the title race.

Red Bull’s gamble to put intermediate tyres on both their drivers late in the race when there was no possibility of the rain abating and the track drying turned out to be a disastrous decision as Verstappen was forced to return to the pits a few laps later to reverse the team’s tyre choice.  By the time his new extreme wet tyres were fitted and he returned to the race, he was down in 16th place.  Clearly Verstappen felt he had not done enough to prove his racing credentials because he then went on a bender that saw him gain 13 places in 16 laps with some breathlessly daring and extraordinarily clever overtaking manoeuvres to end up back where he had been – third behind Rosberg – when the race had re-started for the third time.  Talk about coming full circle.  It was a fittingly Senna-esque drive in the rain on the home circuit in the home city – Sao Paulo – of the legendary Brazilian racing idol.

Hamilton’s uncontested victory means the title tussle goes down to the final race, if not necessarily down to the wire, in Abu Dhabi, in two weeks’ time.  Thanks to Hamilton’s heartbreakingly unlucky engine blowout in Malaysia five weeks ago, Rosberg has not needed to win any subsequent race.  A second or third place in a far, far superior car to the rest of the field bar Hamilton should ensure he wins the title in Abu Dhabi.  A title that will have been won more because of Hamilton’s wretched luck with reliability that was so remarkable it had many people cry conspiracy, rather than Rosberg’s ability to better his team mate in a straight fight.

Of course, should Rosberg win the world title – as he surely will, with the amount of good fortune he has enjoyed this season – no one is going to place an asterisk next to his name with the caveat that he only won because he got lucky and Hamilton was the superior and more deserving driver.  The annals of sport are brimming with great champions, but they are also full of lucky winners who only won because their rivals somehow contrived to lose.  Sport, like life, isn’t always fair.  The best don’t always win.  But as the rain-sodden Brazilian Grand Prix so vividly demonstrated, the best always steal the show.

‘Made It, Ma!’ Andy Murray On Top Of The World

Well, knock me down with a feather.  The lad’s only gone and done it.  Andy Murray.  British tennis player.  World number 1.  I think I need to go and lie down.

Anyone who has lived through the last 77 years of men’s tennis, when British fans would hyperventilate with excitement any time a spirited underdog Brit overachieved by getting through to the 3rd round of Wimbledon, will understand how fantastically absurd the above sounds.   A British tennis player good enough not only to win Wimbledon – twice! – but become the world number 1.  Never in our wildest dreams could we have believed it.  How strange it seems now to hark back to those days when we would strain every quivering sinew with Tim Henman as he valiantly battled the serving giants on the hallowed courts of SW19, urged on desperately by fervid flag waving, Union Jack clad fans, yearning and longing for a home grown champion.  How we would sigh in melancholic despair when he faltered bravely at the semi final hurdle yet again, and curse the rain and the unlucky net cord that would inevitably scupper his progress to immortality and ours into delirium.

We would have been satiated if Tim had won just one Wimbledon.  He didn’t need to be good at anything else.  It’s not like anyone in this country was aware that tennis existed outside of the three week summer Queens/Wimbledon bubble anyway.  The thought of a British tennis player being good enough to be a consistently top player and challenge the very best simply didn’t exist.  Henman and Canadian-Brit compatriot Greg Rusedski were decent players who both got as high as world number 4 and won a handful of ATP titles, and Rusedski even got to a Grand Slam final, the US Open in 1997, but they were never consistent top level performers capable of going toe to toe with the very best, and being serial Grand Slam finalists and Masters winners.

In Andy Murray, Britain had, at last, found its tennis savior.  A British player who wasn’t merely a plucky loser but a proven winner.  And now, finally, our boy has become the world number one.  Well done, Andy!!!  We salute you.  You may drive us (or least me!) up the wall with your paralysing passivity and constant self-reproach, and send us scuttling behind sofas by getting embroiled in unnecessarily epic, gut wrenching, hair-tearing encounters, but we love you anyway.  We would rather be maddened by you than reassured by anyone else.

So how has Andy managed to surmount what appeared to be the insurmountable a mere five months ago?  Back in June, when Andy lost yet again to Novak Djokovic, this time in the French Open final at Roland Garros, and had to watch on the sidelines as the Serbian finally achieved his own grand ambition of doing the career slam, Andy looked about as likely to ascend the pinnacle of tennis as an asthmatic trying to climb Mount Everest.  Djokovic had nearly double Andy’s points tally, he held all four slams, and he had Andy in his pocket.  The world was at Djokovic’s feet while Andy seemed predestined to be the eternal bridesmaid.

But you know what they say: once you reach the summit, there is only one place you can go.  Straight back down.  Even then, Novak’s fall from his exalted perch has been alarmingly precipitous.  A toxic combination of niggling injuries, lack of motivation and marital difficulties has seen him go from being invincible to becoming combustible.  Andy, on the other hand, appears to have found a new lease of life.  Apart from a brief post-Olympic blip caused by exhaustion from his exertions in Rio that wrecked his US Open hopes and Britain’s chance of retaining the Davis Cup, he has not stopped winning.  After a successful Asian swing, and taking the title in Vienna, Andy had to get to the Paris Masters final, with Djokovic failing to reach the semi finals, to dethrone him.  Conveniently, Djokovic promptly lost in the quarter-finals to Marin Cilic, a player who had never previously beaten him in 14 matches.  That’s how bad it had become for Djokovic.  The number one spot was now in Andy’s hands.

Usually, in these situations, it is hide-behind-the-sofa-time, but in the event, frayed nerves and over-chewed fingernails were spared as he didn’t have to hit a ball in anger.  Milos Raonic helpfully pulled out on the eve of their semi final on Saturday, and Andy Murray was the new tennis world number one.  Yes, that’s Andy Murray of Great Britain, the world number one tennis player.

If his elevation was underwhelmingly anti-climactic, the final on the following day against a resurgent John Isner more than made up for it.  In their previous meeting, just two weeks ago, Andy had taught the big-serving giant a tennis lesson, thrashing him with the loss of only four games.  Isner would not be humiliated twice, and came out all guns blazing and big serve blasting.  Clearly, nobody puts Isner in a corner (bit difficult to do since he is 6 ft 10, ahem).  However, anybody who questions Andy’s worthiness as world number one should be made to watch the point he played when he was serving at 5-3 in the first set.  A flicked backhand cross court shot played instinctively on the run and off balance for a winner.  A shot he had no right to get to, let alone hit, for a winner.  Andy Murray may have difficulties winning Grand Slams against GOATs (greatest of all time) and his defensive counter-punching method of play may not be to everyone’s taste – including mine! – and too often hinder rather than help him, but his sheer natural talent should never be doubted.  Murray has an instinctive feel for the ball and ‘soft hands’ more reminiscent of the bygone wooden racket generation.  When he is in a creative mood, he is a joy to watch.

And, credit to him, over the last few weeks, he has played in a more aggressive way, and been far more willing to come forward and finish points off, which has paid rich dividend.  Equally as heartening was seeing a new positive attitude from Andy in the final on Sunday.  While Andy had taken the first set with a break of serve 6-3, he had not broken Isner’s resolve.  It became even more hardened.  Any slight chance Andy created was contemptuously swatted aside with yet another bullet serve.  And when Andy served a double fault in the second set tie break, the set was Isner’s.

The pattern continued in the third.  Now, once upon a time, Andy would have got frustrated and started berating himself, his team, the crowd and the universe.  But here, he remained refreshingly calm and jigged around with positivity every time an unplayable serve whizzed past him.  It was as if becoming the world number one had bestowed upon him a new sense of dignity.  There was a serenity in his manner that suggested he knew his chance would eventually come if he remained patient.  It did.  The hardest game in tennis is serving for, or to stay in, the match.  The pressure can render even the most powerful serve ineffective.  So it proved.  Isner faltered at the last, double faulting and hitting far too many second serves, which were ruthlessly punished by the joint best returner of serve in the game with vicious dipping returns to Isner’s feet that he could only dump helplessly long or into the net.  Andy had triumphed 6-3, 6-7, 6-4.  Unlike Vienna, Isner had made this a competitive match, but the new world number one (this may be repeated many times) was simply better and maintained his unbeaten record against him.

In winning his eight title of the season and 14th Masters overall, Andy Murray joined Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski in becoming the Paris Masters champion.  The Brits clearly enjoy sticking it to the French!  Of course, Andy’s detractors will justifiably claim that his displacement of Djokovic has been achieved through default, solely because of Djokovic’s alarming slump in form.  They will point to the fact that Andy has not beaten too many players of note in the last few months to get to the top, has a 1-3 losing head to head against Djokovic in 2016, with two of those defeats coming in Grand Slam finals, and has only won one Grand Slam to Djokovic’s two.

Andy will get the chance to prove the naysayers wrong at the World Tour Finals, which start at the O2 in London next Sunday.  Almost as though the gods were aware of his need to prove his world number one credentials, he has drawn the group of death.  He will face the US Open champion Stan Wawrinka; the man who beat him in the quarter finals at that US Open – Kei Nishikori, and the player who defeated him in the Cincinnati Masters final, Marin Cilic.  Although the task looks daunting, it does provide Murray with the ideal opportunity for revenge, and were he to beat Stan Wawrinka as well, it would go some way to make up for not winning the US Open.  It would also help him stay ahead of Djokovic, since he still needs to match or better Djokovic to remain ahead in the rankings and finish as the year end world number one.  How appropriate if he could do this in his home country in front of his adoring fans.

Andy Murray has already spoilt us rotten by winning his second Wimbledon title in July.  Ending the year as world number one by winning the World Tour Finals in London would be putting the icing on the cake, the cherry on the pie, the flake in the ice cream.  It would be a fitting end to a year during which Andy has demonstrated the power of sheer persistence.  Winston Churchill once said: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”  Murray’s 2016 is a morality tale of surmounting thwarted ambition.  Churchill also said: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”  Murray was continuously foiled by his nemesis Djokovic in the first half of the year, but just at the point of bitter disappointment, where he might have accepted his fate with weary resignation, Andy chose to take action.  He brought Ivan Lendl back to his team, he became more aggressive on court, and he tackled the grass court season with renewed vigor.  Fortune favours the resolute.  It triggered a run of form, allied with Novak’s slump, that has seen him eclipse his own lofty goals – getting to world number one was supposed to be his aim for next year.

New targets await.  Finally winning the Australian Open after numerous fruitless attempts.  Completing a career slam subsequently with the French Open.  Consolidating his position as world number one.  There will be no resting on laurels.  That is clearly not the Murray way.  His way seems to be: keep going until you get to where you need to be, hell or otherwise.  You never know, you might just stumble upon heaven along the way.

 

Long Road Back To The Top For United

They had 37 attempts on goal, 72% possession, 19 corners, they hit the post, they hit the bar, but still Manchester United couldn’t break through the rock hard defence of Burnley at Old Trafford on Saturday.  It was a similar story to their last home match against Stoke a month ago, where for all their huffing and puffing they could only manage a 1-1 draw.  Two matches, 61 shots at goal, a grand total of one goal scored.  When your luck’s out, it’s out.  Just ask Lewis Hamilton.

No doubt the ABUs are wallowing gleefully in Schadenfreude at United’s latest misfortune.  Cue echoes of ‘I told you so’ at the appointment of Jose Mourinho after his latest attention grabbing antics saw him ignominiously sent to the stands for protesting too much at Darmian’s probably correctly denied penalty appeal in the first half.  No one is better at diverting attention away from the team than Mourinho, but whether that is a good thing, even when the team are struggling and could perhaps do with having attention diverted away from them, is debatable.  However, United are stuck with him for better, for worse.  Changing managers yet again would only serve to destabilise the club further.

It is not mercurial managers nor mediocre players who are the real problem.  History is against Manchester United.  The previous two teams to dominate English football before Fergie’s United both suffered a precipitous decline in their league fortunes in the aftermath.  Matt Busby’s Manchester United reigned supreme in the 50s and 60s, but after Busby’s retirement it would take United 26 years to win the league title again.  Likewise, Liverpool ruled the roost from the late 60s up to 1990, but they have not won the league title since.  26 years and counting.  A long period of league domination followed by an equally prolonged decline is the inevitable trajectory of the supremely successful team.  The pride and the fall.

So United’s current decline was inevitable.  The media may obsess and the opposition fans taunt, but United fans will need to be patient and take it all on the chin.  The glory days will be back, but the wheel of fortune may take a while to turn again.  Just so long as it doesn’t take 26 years…

United Show City How It’s Done

There aren’t too many things Manchester United are better at than their City rivals right now, but taking penalties seems to be one of them.  While City missed two penalties against Everton last Saturday, United showed them how should be done last night by scoring two penalties in their 4-1 Europa League win over Fenerbahce at Old Trafford.

United’s four goals also came the day after City conceded four goals – albeit in the Champions League to the mighty Barcelona and a wonderful hat-trick from irrepressible genius Messi – a reversal for United fans to enjoy, no matter how momentary.

After a nondescript opening half an hour, the game sparked to life when United were awarded two penalties in just three minutes after some clumsy defending from Fenerbahce.  Interestingly, United’s regular penalty taker, Wayne Rooney, allowed Paul Pogba to take the first and Anthony Martial the second.  It was a surprisingly magnanimous gesture from the beleaguered United skipper, who desperately needs goals, not only to silence his ever growing critics, but also because he is only three goals behind Bobby Charlton’s all time United goalscoring record.

Ironically, it was against Fenerbahce in the Champions League 12 years ago that a precocious 18 year old Rooney made a spectacular debut for United, scoring a dazzling hat trick that provided a thrilling glimpse of his gilded future.  If the present Rooney is a shadow of that effortless goal-scoring past self, he is still proving pivotal to United’s fortunes.  Perhaps he gave the penalties to Pogba and Martial to help them gain some much needed goal scoring confidence themselves.  Rooney’s generosity certainly paid off when Pogba scored a stunning third goal from 20 yards after a triangle of short passes involving Rooney and Jesse Lingard, who laid the ball off to Pogba.  An identical move involving the triumvirate at the start of the second half saw Pogba pass to Rooney on the edge of the box, who laid it off for Lingard this time.  His sweet strike gave United their fourth goal and three valuable points to take them second in the group.  The dancing goal celebrations between Pogba and Lingard – United’s most expensive buy and the one who cost them nothing –  were as memorable as the goals themselves.  Perhaps they were auditioning for an invite to Strictly Come Dancing!

It was a night for trips down memory lane.  The biggest cheer of the match was reserved for Fenerbahce’s late consolation goal, scored by United old boy Robin Van Persie.  It was a trademark tap in reminiscent of the good old days.  They don’t forget their own at Old Trafford.  It was thanks to Van Persie’s 30 goals that United won their last Premier League title back in 2013 in Fergie’s swansong year.  The United fans were loud and generous in their acclaim for their former hero.  What would they give for a 30 goals a season striker right now?

As it is, at least they get to enjoy a better week than City.  Which is saying something in a week that began with a dour 0-0 away trip to Anfield.  It will end with a kind of homecoming for Jose Mourinho, when United travel to Stamford Bridge on Sunday.  United fans will be hoping that’s another trip down memory lane which ends with a victory for their team.

Andy Murray Swings Closer To World No 1

Back in June, when Novak Djokovic was master of the universe, conquering all before him, including Andy Murray, there seemed more chance of Scotland winning the World Cup – or at least, qualifying for one – than Andy Murray getting anywhere near the world number one spot, so far ahead was Djokovic from the rest of the field.  Fast forward four months, and a successful Asian swing has left Murray a tantalisingly close 915 points behind Djokovic.  Who’d a thunk it?

After his fruitless exertions in the Davis Cup against Argentina last month, Murray appeared exhausted and injured, and in sore need of a good, long rest.  Yet Andy looked as fresh as a daisy as he won the Shanghai Masters on Sunday against tenacious Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut  7-6, 6-1, without dropping a set during the whole tournament.  This followed a win in the ATP 500 China Open last week, giving Murray a points haul of 1,500 in the space of two weeks to close the gap on Djokovic, who only played Shanghai and suffered a mini meltdown on his way out of the semi finals to Bautista Agut.

Now, Murray’s detractors will be itching to point out that he didn’t beat anyone of note, but, hey, you can only beat who is in front of you.  However, the one thing Andy deserves immense credit for is his ‘bouncebackability’.  I must confess, after that French Open defeat to Djokovic, following on from losing to him in yet another Australian Open final, I did wonder whether Andy had hit the buffers and would ever win another Grand Slam again.  Then, barely a month later, with the inscrutable Ivan Lendl safely tucked back in his corner, wham, he was the Wimbledon champion.  And then, Olympic champion.  With Novak hurtling alarmingly to base after reaching his personal summit at Roland Garros, Andy seemed to be in the ascendancy.  Under Lendl’s positive influence he looked a different beast: more controlled, more positive, less irritable.  A newer Andy.  The US Open was his for the taking.

Only he couldn’t take it.  Against Nishikori in the quarter finals, the old demons came raging back, derailing him at a crucial time.  To rub salt in the wound, Stan Wawrinka won the US Open, his third Grand Slam out of three, illustrating his big match mentality.  For all of Andy’s consistency over the years and junior membership of the ‘Big Four’, Stan again had the same number of Grand Slams as him.  That brutal US Open loss in five frustrating sets, which Andy really ought to have won, was followed by an even more gruelling defeat against Del Potro in the Davis Cup, with Andy regressing once more to his trademark passive and grumbling self.  It looked like New Andy would be just a fleeting summer phenomenon.

But once again, after a bit of rest and recuperation, he has come bouncing back.  He has an ATP 500 in Vienna next week, followed by the final Masters of the season in Paris, plus the World Tour Finals in London, to do what has gone from being impossible to unlikely to maybe.  Of course, Andy being Andy, nothing is ever straightforward.  The pendulum keeps swinging, but Andy keeps going.  Perhaps soon, to the very top.