This article opens our series on 2012 in review, which will award seven types of distinctions to one player on each Tour. Where better to begin than with the man who began a new phase of his career?
Murray’s gold medal at the Olympics and, especially, his US Open title validated his status as a legitimate member of the ATP top four.
By the end of 2011, Murray’s knuckles had grown bruised and bloodied from banging in vain at the door of Grand Slam greatness. As time trickled past, the Scot had tasted disappointment at majors in all of its flavors from humiliating routs to agonizing epics. To wash the bitterness from his mouth, he enlisted Ivan Lendl during the offseason to assist him in bursting through the barrier that held the Czech in check for so long.
At first, the decision appeared to reap only modest rewards for the man sometimes dubbed the “masters of the minors.” Although Murray reached a semifinal in Melbourne and a final in Miami, his losses to Djokovic at both of those tournaments displayed the type of simultaneously anxious and tentative tennis all too familiar to his fans. With just one small title to his name by June, stagnation hovered on the horizon as the all-important grass season of Wimbledon and the Olympics loomed. Dogged by the ill fortune of playing in the same generation as the trio ranked above him, Murray needed a bit of good fortune to turn around the trajectory of his season. And he got it, when Rosol upset Nadal in the first week of Wimbledon, opening the home hope’s draw to reach his first final there without facing anyone more notable than Ferrer. That said, Murray still injected plenty of drama into his matches at the All England Club despite the generally inferior competition, including one victory that ended past the Wimbledon curfew.
Under the unforgiving spotlight of a Wimbledon final, Murray managed the pressure with maturity and grace that not only earned him more fans but also set the tone for his impending achievements. Although Federer denied him the ideal ending to his quest for a major, he did not crumble in adversity or despair when the match turned against them, instead battling the GOAT throughout four tightly contested sets. As promising as his more assertive tennis was this improved composure with which he blended his emotion, and this trait served him well when he reached the medal matches at the Olympics. Pitted against world #1 Djokovic, who had named a gold medal one of his central goals for 2012, Murray avenged his two notable losses to the Serb earlier this year in a straight-sets victory more decisive than the scoreline showed. Even more decisive was his authoritative victory over Federer in the gold-medal match, when he capitalized on the unique opportunity to win an Olympic event in Great Britain. While Federer’s draining semifinal with Del Potro clearly depleted his energies for this best-of-five encounter, Murray still deserved credit for turning the tables on the same rival who had vanquished on the same court just a month before, when the stakes loomed nearly as large.
Noting the plethora of unremarkable Olympic medalists that tennis has produced, however, skeptics continued to emphasize that the stakes do not loom quite as large at the Olympics as they do at a major—not an inarguable but a commonly accepted point. Only a title at one of the sport’s four cornerstones would persuade those disillusioned by Murray’s futility there, and surprisingly he traveled under the radar for most of the US Open. Despite his gold medal, Federer and Djokovic attracted the majority of the attention from fans and media accustomed to their dominance, while the retirements of Roddick and Clijsters generated their share of headlines as well. Perhaps that relative absence of buzz calmed Murray as each round passed, allowing him to save his emotional fire for the final weekend. Outside an oddly erratic performance against Cilic, he arrived at the semifinals largely unscathed and benefited from the fickle weather conditions then to outlast a befuddled Berdych.
Recalling his fortnight at Wimbledon, then, Murray had arrived at a major final without facing any of his three major rivals. But, fittingly, one of them barred his path on the tournament’s third Monday: the defending champion and victor at the last three hard-court majors. For reasons unclear, Djokovic started the US Open final even more tensely than did Murray, and a series of routine errors not only cost him a nail-biting tiebreak in the first set but plunged deep into a second-set hole. Just at the moment when he could have cruised to the title, leading by a set and a double break, the world #4 nearly fumbled away his advantage before eking out the set anyway after more untimely miscues from his opponent. That near-stumble on the threshold of the victory presaged the massive stumble that followed, when his two-set lead evaporated. Marching back from the brink of defeat with his characteristic panache, Djokovic reclaimed all of the momentum from Murray in the third and fourth sets. The Scot’s fans watched aghast at the prospect of a catastrophe that could have altered the course of their favorite’s career irrevocably, for few men could have recovered from that degree of heartbreak. Displaying none of those fears, however, Murray stood his ground in a crucial opening game of the fifth set, when he broke Djokovic after a series of endless rallies and never looked back en route to securing his long-awaited title.
Of course, that moment of triumph did not instantly catapult Murray to the level of his more accomplished rivals, two of whom have won career Grand Slams and the third of whom fell one match short of holding every major title simultaneously. In the fall season that followed, he surrendered key battles to Djokovic and Federer, while both of his losses at Masters 1000 tournaments came after he failed to convert match points. Like most first-time major champions, he may need a respite to grow comfortable with his new status, and consistency remains an area for him to significantly improve. On the other hand, Murray’s absence of Masters 1000 titles in 2012 (his first such season since 2007) seemed appropriate in a sense. No longer the master of the minors, he had become the master of a major—and likely more to come.
Number to note:
76: The number of years since the last British man had won a major when Murray won the US Open. Finally Fred Perry can lie in peace. Or can he? The Wimbledon drought continues…
Breakthrough of the Year (WTA)