Is it too late to write about Andy Murray’s Wimbledon win? Considering how late I was in writing about his US Open win, this delay is nothing. Is it necessary to write about Andy Murray’s Wimbledon win, considering how many times I’ve written about him already? Strictly speaking, it isn’t, but you know, what the hell.
Over time, I’ve begun to think that my empathy for Andy Murray is perfect. No, of course I don’t actually feel the pressure that he feels, of course I don’t how much those first four Slam final losses broke his spirit, and, even more importantly, what exact road he travelled to actually win not one, but two Slams as of now. My empathy is perfect in the sense that back when he seemed to play Slam finals with a tense, emotionally volatile manner, I used to watch them with an equally tense attitude. Now that he has slowly learnt to play them with a more relaxed mindset, I too have learnt to watch them with a more relaxed mindset. Somewhere inside, he believes that things are going to be fine, and I too believe it. But when he gets incredibly tense during, say, the very last game of a match, well, my toes are fully curled in as well.
It is impossible to imagine how things might have turned out if Murray had lost that game after the first three match points. That fundamental unpredictability is part of the beauty of sport, of course. Whether a match goes down as heartbreaking or life-affirming, or, indeed, both, is not clear until the last point is played. In a different world, you would say that Murray should have been mentally ready to play a fourth set, and a fifth. In yet another one, you would clearly see that Djokovic was not at his best, and Murray would eventually win anyway. In the world as it is, with Murray’s difficult Slam final history, and Novak Djokovic’s remarkable mental strength, it was all too easy to believe that Murray would have gone on to lose the match had he lost the game.
In truth, Djokovic had never quite looked like himself throughout the match. But we have learnt to expect such miracles from him that a comeback always seemed possible. Physically too, he has set the bar so high for himself that the possibility that he might not have recovered fully from the semifinal against Juan Martin Del Potro hadn’t really occurred to most of us. The Murray-Djokovic matches are always scrappy. Their similar playing styles and extreme familiarity with each other’s game make their matches less entertaining than, say, the Djokovic-Del Potro semifinal. Points are hard-fought with plenty of long rallies, games can go to several deuces, and a set can easily take an hour. These two play some tight tennis, and yet, on the day, Murray was definitely looking slightly like the better player. Not better enough to win in straight sets, but certainly better. Mentally too, some of the running forehands showed how badly he wanted to win, and how much he was willing to put in. Whatever the analysis, Andy Murray came through in that final game, a game he later said he couldn’t remember much of, so tense was he. And as the crowds erupted, so there was a massive Yay! from and around me.
The last 2% of what it that takes to go from being a runner-up to a Slam winner can be as much work as the first 98%. And to make matters more complicated, it may not actually be evident what exactly that 2% is. Marion Bartoli parted ways with her father coaching-wise in order to win a Slam, and soon after she won one. For Djokovic, with one Slam already but “languishing” at World No. 3, it took a new diet (gluten-free), a meditation practice, and maybe even a hyberbaric chamber, to move to a Slam tally of six. For Andy Murray, one has to believe that the changes needed were as much mental as anything. The work he did, with his “Team,” was not just in the realm of the improved serve and increased offensive play, but something that is much harder to articulate. Most of the work done was in a place deep inside his psyche. Tennis is so much more than a physical game.
Is there another champion in any sport who talks of his team “doing a lot of patching over some mental scars from tough losses”? About how his mother has seen him be “extremely upset after a lot of losses” and is hence so emotional after his win? About how he sobbed into his pillow for a few days after last year’s Wimbledon? In an NPR interview the day after Wimbledon, Michael Goldfarb said Andy Murray was tough guy to love, but an easy guy to admire. Is this for real, or has ti become a lazy cliche? It’s a common enough complaint, and it always leaves me baffled. Are these people looking at the same tennis player I am looking at? The one who said to Sue Barker that this year’s Wimbledon result was “slightly different” to last year’s? Maybe it is his directness that gets him into trouble, as when he gave an interviewer short shrift when she asked if he was about to “pop the question.” Am I the only one to find the candour refreshing?
I wonder sometimes if Andy Murray’s struggles and successes would have played out differently if he hadn’t had to bear the burden of British expectations and media frenzy. I am a Britophile to a very large extent (not Anglophile, but Britophile), but the way I see it, his story is pretty compelling even without the “nation waiting for 77 years” angle. For a young player to show so much promise, come so close to delivering, only to fail repeatedly, and finally to find a way to his goal, rather than just falling away, is as wonderful a story as sport or life or fiction can offer. The fact of his nationality seems almost incidental to it. Perhaps for some, it adds to the drama of the narrative, but I don’t see that it needs more drama.
In any case, the days of high drama may be behind us. Murray will always get far too many obsessed column inches in the British newspapers, but after his first Slam last year, and his first Wimbledon this year, it is actually possible that the media will let him be to some extent. Even if he wins no more Slams, things will be still be fine in some sense. He has said he hopes to remain hungry, and I for one hope he does win some more Slams. The Andy Murray smile is so rare to see that I only just now realized that he probably has a dimple or two. I look forward to confirming this at a future Slam.