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.