Andy Murray Greatest of …
Andy Murray is living a surreal moment. As tennis stars age, improve and grow up, the narrative of their career, the iconography of their public persona invariably shifts. Think of the way Roger Federer has shifted in the public eye. Beginning as a brash, rather loud young challenger, like a new wine, he aged over the years into the mellow self-confident champion, all smooth flavor and soft tannin, that we know today. On the women’s stage, one has the Williams’ sisters evolution from rowdy, irreverent upstarts to the respected elder stateswomen of the game. But the change in how the tennis-appreciating public looks at Andy has to be surreal for the current world number one because unlike other stars, today he is essentially the same person and player he was when started his pro career over a decade ago. The only difference is now the very things fans found grating in an underachieving superstar they find commendable and endearing in a world number one champion. Andy is still outspoken and opinionated, still fire and drama and internal monologue on court, yet still at the same time dry and monotone. Though he has evolved, his core values remain the same. Andy Murray doesn’t want to please you. Andy Murray greatest wants to live up to his own expectations of himself.
In 2005, the year Murray turned pro, Roger Federer was in the midst of his epic run of winning both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open five times in a row. 2005 was also the year of Nadal’s first French Open, and Andy Roddick was still teasing wishful Americans into thinking he could be a worthy heir to Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Tim Henman, the beloved if underachieving British tennis star for whom a hill outside Wimbledon Centre Court is named, was in the twighlight of his career.
Beginning at 407 in the world rankings, he started quietly enough, firing a coach and reaching the semifinals of the Boy’s French Open (dropping the match to Marin Cilic) before playing well enough in the Queen’s grass court tournament to earn a wild card to Wimbledon, reaching the third round. It was there that the tennis world began to take notice, and he continued on a positive trajectory, reaching his first ATP final later that year (losing to Roger) and finishing the year ranked number 64. The next year he won his first title and surpassed Tim Henman as British number one.
For Anglophiles, the contrast between Murray and Henman couldn’t be more stark. Henman is a posh player from a posh part of England who grew up with a grass tennis court in his parents’ “garden.” Murray is a Scot from the decidedly not-posh city of Glasgow, and though it would be a stretch to call his background working class, his family represented a certain middle-class striving that would be out of place in the leafier sections of the Home Counties.
From almost the beginning Murray polarized the tennis world.
The Tao of Murray
To the casual observer, Murray is a trodding, whinging player. A broken down grandfather in a young man’s body. He nearly always appears in pain or exasperated on court.Those grimaces and screams and muttered implorations are the volcanic eruptions of a grinder driven by an intense desire to prove the world wrong and to satisfy his own inner vision of himself.
The traditional premise goes something like this, “If Andy Murray was born a few years earlier or a few years later, he would have three times as many grand slams, but he’s not capable of matching Novak or Rafa or Roger.” It’s a simple enough premise, one that seems to make sense on the surface (though Andy, for his part, has always dismissed the idea), but even if true, this idea alters the fundamental beauty of Andy Murray’s story, which has less to do with his total numbers against fellow Big Four members and everything to do with his perseverance against them.
Andy was in his eighth year on tour before winning his first major title, the U.S. Open in 2012. Setting aside the fact that eight years is longer than many players’ entire careers, it’s super rare for a first win to come so late. Roger first won one in his sixth year, Nadal in his fourth, and Djokovic in his third. And the 2012 U.S. Open wasn’t Andy’s first opportunity. Unlike other members of the Big Four, Murray’s pre-2012 career also included three Grand Slam finals before finally closing out one. Along the way, he was vilified at times by his home island for his outspoken fervor for Scottish independence, chastised by fans for his on-court groaning and moping, and taken for a ride in the press for simultaneously having no personality while unapologetically speaking out against such touchy issues as equal pay for men and women. Think too long on the entirety of this and your head may explode from the cognitive dissonance.
Today the perception of Murray as a person and player has shifted even if his overall persona has barely budged an inch. He remains a hotbed of emotion on the court. He is shockingly frank and unbelievably confident in how he addresses issues on tour. He is a doting first-time father and unapologetic about putting his family first. He remains unfailingly loyal to his family and fellow countrymen on tour, and is a noted role model in the locker room, freely handing out his cell phone number as a resource for younger players needing advice.
His basic on-court ethos is the same. The primary difference is the supreme level of confidence, the smart aggression, and improved movement. He rallies points with more focus and has grown adept at channeling his rage into performance. His improvement over the last few years has come less because of radical change in his game and derives instead from inspired iteration on the things that made him a promising young player.
No player on tour has worked harder across to improve their game across the second half of their career. Stan Wawrinka arguably comes closest, but Andy Murray’s steady rise from junior member of the Big Four to world number one came at a time when fans were starting to wonder if anyone could match Djokovic is monumentally impressive. Aiding this rise were a capacity for hard work, a willingness to take risks (hiring former female champion Amelie Mauresmo as coach, firing her as coach, hiring Ivan Lendl as coach), and an unwillingness to compromise on his core values.
Andy Murray Greatest of this Moment
Nothing about Andy Murray’s current position was preordained. Andy Murray could have quickly become Andy Roddick — a fantastic player and one-time champion eclipsed by greater men — but he willed the opposite. Only Andy Murray’s supreme level of belief in himself could have driven such a rise to the top. The sentimentalist in me also believes fatherhood played a role (and Andy has acknowledged such himself). By having a little daughter in his life who matters more than tennis ever could, he has a better perspective on where his game fits in the grand scheme of things. This realization, while seemingly antithetical to a rise to the top, unbinds the player and frees his game. A loss pre-birth meant Andy had little to do but stew on his failings. A loss today means he goes home to play with his toddler.
Nobody knows how long Andy’s reign at the top will last, but for now, Andy has conquered inner demons, outlasted on-court foes, and won over a begrudging media and fan base. With Federer and Nadal still on the fritz and Djokovic vanquished for now (though certainly perhaps not for long, as his defeat of Andy this past week in Doha showss), you can’t name Andy Murray greatest player of all time, but he’s certainly the greatest player of this moment.