This time, a year ago, Andy Murray was perhaps the best also-ran in the history of men’s tennis. He had lost for the sixth time in the semifinals of a Grand Slam. He had played as beautifully as he ever had, but was left crooked and shattered after five grueling, enthralling sets that spanned four hours and 50 minutes against Novak Djokovic, Murray’s great contemporary, who days later would lift his fifth major title. A pattern seemed to be developing, and there were questions—doubts about intangibles, soothsaying about his body language, his frequent moans towards the box, the constant compulsive tagging at his wristbands. But mostly, there was the question of his inability to play fearless, attacking tennis at the important moments, the way near-peers such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic so consistently did.
It wasn't that he couldn't; it was that he didn't. In almost any other era, he'd have won multiple Grand Slams. He had run up a winning record against Federer; he had shown that he could out-think Djokovic and Nadal on numerous occasions; when he wasn’t on center court bidding for a place in the final or for his first major victory, he was often a majestic sight to behold, exploding the game's geometries to create angles of improbable brilliance. And yet he was not a part of the transcendent rivalry between Djokovic, Nadal and Federer. The big question, beyond the wristbands and the flameouts on center court, was whether he was condemned to remain on the outside, as an inferior player, and whether he'd accept it. Of all that Andy Murray accomplished in 2012, maybe nothing is more impressive than his unwillingness to play the role to which he seemed consigned just a year ago.
This is maybe the headiest era in the history of men's tennis. Most matches between the top players are closely fought, often arduous five-setters; words such as “epic,” “classic,” “marathon,” “mythical,” and so forth are common, and frequently justified. This real-time mythology is populated by a cast of mythic characters. Federer is the ethereal talent, the greatest player of all time but on an unending decline, with every loss of his signifying a change of guard. Djokovic is a gladiatorial beast that never knows when it’s beaten, and Nadal the impermeable warrior, with or without the troubles to his knee. This shorthand did lesser stars like Murray no favors; he had his story, too, which amounted to every loss in the latter stages of a Grand Slam serving as proof of his mental frailty.
In 2012, Murray won the U.S. Open and an Olympic Gold Medal. This upended the old narrative, and opened a new one. A year later, the question is not whether Murray can ever win, but whether his Grand Slam demons are beyond him; if his latest loss to Djokovic in the Australian Open final on Sunday is a mere blip in a journey towards further success or that sour past overtaking him again. But we know some things, now.
In the immediate aftermath of his semifinal loss at the Australian Open last year, Murray went through a patchy spell. But at Wimbledon, with The Weight of a Nation on his shoulders and all that, Murray sailed into the final, albeit not without glitches. He dropped sets to Ivo Karlovic, Marcos Baghdatis, David Ferrer and Jo Wilfried Tsonga, in the semifinal, but his tennis was often sublime. He was serving with a confidence and élan that we had been unaccustomed to from him, and his forehand, for many years an apparent weakness, was turning into a weapon, a pounding thing. It wasn’t anything on the order of the weaponized forehand that had belonged to Murray's new coach, Ivan Lendl, but it was the greatest feature of the post-Lendl Murray. In the Wimbledon final, after a breathtaking first set, he succumbed, seemingly (to pay heed to the typecasting) to his familiar mental weakness, but also to Federer’s greatness. A tearful speech ensued. Murray said he was “getting closer.”
And only weeks later, on the same hallowed center court, Murray would spank Federer 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 in the Olympic gold medal match. The Swiss was palpably not at his best, but Murray was playing brilliantly, even joyously, in front of his home crowd—suddenly the pressure seemed to have been lifted. He was using little changes of pace, and subtle slices and dabs to chip away at Federer’s core, but he was also striking his forehand with a rare sense of freedom. It was difficult to say at the time what the win would mean for Murray. He had just beaten Federer on grass at Wimbledon, but it wasn’t a major. He seemed to relish the occasion, but even his own victory speech suggested that as proud a moment as it was, it wasn’t the Grand Slam win that he so badly desired. That was coming.
2012 was an astonishing year for tennis. Nadal lost an outrageous final at Melbourne to Djokovic, who had begun 2012 as he had finished 2011, then beat the Serb on the clay at Roland Garros in another terrific match. Federer, written off by so many, rolled back the years to reemerge as the number one player with a victory at Wimbledon that brimmed with his customary elegance. But Murray, up until the US Open, was both a part of and not a part of the story. Even if he now believed he could beat Federer and Djokovic in the latter stages of a major, he had not yet done it.
In New York, the Scot would proceed to the final, but once again not without blips. But it was his defeat of Djokovic that was most telling. It wasn’t a mere obliteration of a mental barrier, although it was that. It was also one of the finest displays of tennis in recent memory. The furious winds that swerved through stadium court made it difficult to sit, let alone play, but the pair produced rally after rally of shattering intensity. Murray would win the first two sets, including a mindboggling 22-point tiebreak, drop the next two, but win the fifth 6-2 after four hours and 54 minutes. It was rousing and beautiful and exhausting and exhaustive, and it seemed safe to say that Murray had arrived at the end of it. And yet, because this is tennis at this moment, that's not anything like the end of anything. There were new challenges, but mostly there were those old ones, which weren't actually old at all.
Before his semifinal in Melbourne last Friday, Murray led his head-to-head against Federer 10-9, but had never defeated the Swiss in a Grand Slam match. The only time he took a set off Federer in one of those three matches was in last year’s Wimbledon final. Yet even that improved Murray was not easy to spot in the one on the court in Melbourne.
This Murray boomed his once brittle first serves in with great accuracy, and his forehand was now his chosen mode of attack. He could both smack it down the ground and flick it to stretch Federer off the deuce court. On many occasions, he ran around his backhand—once his most trusted stroke, and still very effective—to thump the ball off the other wing with such amazing power and precision that Federer was often left so hapless that it was painful to watch. In doing so, Murray also showed much of his famous patience, willing to engage with Federer in backhand cross-court rallies, before unleashing his forehand at the right moment.
This, conventional wisdom goes, is the difference made by Lendl. But it still doesn’t answer how the Scot beat Federer in six of their first eight meetings, all on hard courts, with a game that relied primarily on an inborn sense for space and strong counter-punching. Federer had noted in the past that he’s been troubled by Murray’s approach—it wasn’t the kind of pure counter-punching that Michael Chang or Lleyton Hewitt used to prefer, but it was full of cutting slices and subtle changes in pace that made it hard for a naturally attacking player like Federer to offset. Perhaps, therefore, the win was a product of the new Murray—a change in mental make-up and superior concentration, maybe?
Murray didn't seem to want to talk about it, and the match's stats suggest it might not have been all that complicated. Murray comprehensively dominated, out-acing Federer 21 to 5, hitting 62 winners to Federer's 43 and winning 63% of his second serve points to Federer’s 42, often a good indicator of how a match plays out. Yet the match went to five sets.
But here is where Murray was different. There was no sign of edginess or tension as he came out to serve in the third set, unlike at Wimbledon. He attacked Federer with powerful forehand after forehand, then attacked some more. In the sixth game of the set, Federer played a sloppy game, and gifted Murray the break, which the Scot consolidated in a fashion that would have been befitting of his opponent. As Murray served for the match at 6-5, Federer went on the offensive, seemingly going for broke—a tactic, which he had criticized Djokovic for employing two years back at the US Open. He took that game and the ensuing tie-break with ease. Another Murray disaster from a position of strength.
But once again in the fifth set, Murray came out with no apparent signs of nerves; no moans to the box; no tugging of the wristbands. He broke Federer twice, and won the set 6-2 in just about 30 minutes. No thrilling end. Just another barrier in ruins.
There was to be no encore of the U.S. Open final for Murray. He was well beaten by Djokovic, in four sets, even though he more than held his own in the opening two hours of the match, when neither player conceding their serve. The whole match was a matter of narrow margins.
Djokovic, who had had an extra day’s rest, and was well rested after having beaten David Ferrer in less than 90 minutes in the semifinal, was much the fresher, with Murray further inhibited by blisters on his right toe. There were many times when Murray was far too tame, but this was not Murray defeating himself. He was merely beaten by the better player on the day, a player who always finds his best form in Australia and whose game, moreover, has no apparent weaknesses. Many of Murray's previous defeats in similar circumstances might have been just this, too. But the storyline has shifted.
To earn a number one ranking, Murray would need to perform with greater consistency; he would need to have a better clay court season; he would need to trust his attacking attributes more, as he did against Federer in the semifinal. But if the last year is anything to go by, Murray certainly won’t be shying away from any of that. It's his story to write, now.