The word I’m looking for is salvation I think. Well deserved, long overdue salvation.
Perhaps it isn’t overdue. Perhaps it’s come at exactly the right time, not a moment too soon, not a moment too late. It’s come when he was good and ready, and it’s waited till he was good and ready. It’s taken a while.
I feel like I’ve been yelling “Come on Andy!” since September 2008 at least. And my throat is hoarse from yelling. I don’t intend to stop anytime soon, but hopefully it won’t be laced with quite the same desperation in the future. I doubt I’ll ever yell it comfortably, you can’t be a Murray supporter and be comfortable, but the sense of impending doom may be just a bit less. Perhaps.
The thing is, supporting Murray is a bit like loving someone with a poor track record in the solid-and-trustworthy department. You know he’s been weak before, you know how it’s hurt, you know he’s trying really hard. You think you might walk away, but honestly, who are you kidding? And so you just hang in there, and you hope it’ll all take a turn for the better, but even when it appears to, you’re not quite sure if the change is permanent. It takes a while to really believe.
When you’ve seen Murray be in a good position, lose a couple of games, get mad with himself, start to make errors and go on to lose the match, when you’ve seen all of this repeatedly, you can no longer imagine things being any different. Well, not exactly. You can in fact imagine things being different — you can imagine them being worse. Such as in the Slam finals where he was basically a non-starter, never even arriving at the mental battle, having lost it already. With all that baggage, you felt like he would never learn to get out of his own way, that he would always second-guess himself, always doubt his ability to the detriment of his game and, basically, always lose when it mattered.
It’s not that you held it against him, not at all. Or at least I never did. The competition was fierce, the pressures arising out of the British Grand Slam drought (read, media) were tremendous, and for every self-assured Grand Slam winner, comfortable with their legacy and their place in the game, it’s only fair that there should be the occasional moody player, about whom you always wondered if they had what it took, and seemingly, they themselves wondered as well.
We may never know what exactly changed in the mental landscape, how much of it was the Lendl factor. Just as he walked the dark corridors inside his mind unseen by us, so he turned the corner unseen by us. All we know is that he got closer and closer this year. There was the tough loss to Djokovic in Melbourne, the loss to Federer at Wimbledon (where he won a set in a Slam final for the first time), and then the win over the same man in the same place four weeks later, for Olympic gold.
The talent was never in doubt, the work ethic was never in doubt, nor was the hunger. The intelligence was never in doubt either, and, latterly, neither was the emotionality. But the composure during matches was visibly improving, and for me his play at the 15-40 points was a microcosm of the strides he had made. Where before he would have suffered through three deuces to possibly win and probably lose serve, he now just played four solid points (a lot of them off first serves) to calmly close out the game, no stress.
I say no stress, but it’s not true at all. I did not actually see his final, though I saw the very windy semi against Berdych with reasonable composure. The final was on a Monday, and I was at work, which is my avowed excuse. But I’ve seen past US Open finals from work, yet avoided this one. I was in a meeting at the start of the match, and since he was doing well in the first set when I saw the score, I thought I wouldn’t jinx him by starting to watch. (Like the good little superstitious cricket fan that I am.) So I kept following the score, as he won the first set, led in the second, lost the lead but went on to win it anyway, and then as he started falling away in the third, my heart started to thud a little, my fingers went cold, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to bear to watch it. Once he lost the third and the fourth, I stopped following even the score. It was too hard to take. I suppose it was exactly the wrong time to quit. He got an early lead in the fifth, and held on to it to win. I was lucky enough to see the last few points live, as a colleague mentioned to me on IM that Murray was about to win, and I hurried over to his office where he had the live stream on.
(I should add that I was my no means alone in this “Murray supporter who can’t watch Murray” business. A Scottish friend who high-fived me over Murray’s victory a couple of days later said how his wife had watched the game while he sat in a different room, and how this was the norm for them. We laughed and joked about Alex Fergusson and Sean Connery having been in the stands and press conference for the semi and the final, and we sympathized with Andy’s mother, who had also found it torturous to watch her son.)
So what I will remember about the final is the last few points, and then the aftermath — how he expressed disbelief and relief, how there was no jumping up and down, no flopping on the ground, no wild joy. Just disbelief, and utter, exhausted relief. (And also the search for the watch from his sponsors Rado, while limping around with a cramped leg.) I don’t know if it took a few days for it to sink in for him, it certainly did for me. For many days after, I found myself thinking of his win at random times, smiling and maybe even laughing, always with disbelief, and relief. I think I had finally swallowed what had happened by the time I read about his reception in Dunblane.
In retrospect, I can’t imagine how he kept going through the barren years. Through all the doubt and the questions, and the losses and the failures. I am sure he thought of them as failures, whatever the objective interpretation might be. He spoke of how it got even harder when people started to say, “We believe in you. You are going to get there.” He spoke of how he dreamt that he had won Wimbledon. I wonder if he could ever, even for a moment, completely switch off the knowledge that he hadn’t won a slam. (Brian Phillips’s towel analogy is brilliant and hilarious in this regard, as is so much of his work.) I don’t know what it must have required of his spirit to keep going, except to say that humans do in fact have the ability to keep going on like that, and he demonstrated it. And finally, I don’t know what he (or even I!) would have suffered if he had lost that fifth Slam final. I am glad we did not have to find out. I’m glad that his salvation finally arrived.
I don’t care if his play isn’t sublime, I don’t care if he never plays elegantly, I don’t care if he never appears invincible or even solid, I don’t care if all his Slam finals are tense five-setters that I never watch, and I don’t care if he always makes me so nervous that I think I’ll throw up. I’m just incredibly glad that he won a Slam. Oh I probably want him to win some more. But that can wait, it can all wait. He is there, Andy Murray is finally there, and that is all.