By David Zakhodin
Upon watching a weak backhand passing shot hit the bottom of the net, Andy Murray gave a flurry of fist pumps as he shouted in celebration of a second Wimbledon crown. A feeling of elation overcame him that he couldn’t have felt following his victory three years earlier at The All England Club. When he vanquished longtime rival Novak Djokovic to snap the streak of no British men winning Wimbledon since the days of Fred Perry, the only thing Murray felt was relief. After many years of pressure, a sense of the collective weight of the United Kingdom had come off his shoulders. It was clear that the 2013 Wimbledon title drained Murray to a breaking point. After accomplishing his ultimate career goal, he would suffer through a setback in his career. Bothered by a slew of coaching changes after a temporary divorce with Ivan Lendl and a back surgery that took away his biggest weapon, conditioning, Murray was once again in an uphill battle.
Despite a down 2014 season and a 2015 year where he clearly trailed Roger Federer for the title of second fiddle to Djokovic, Murray began to build confidence in 2016 on the back of steady commitment to working harder off the court than the rest of the field. He did not all of a sudden change his attitude and stop yelling at his box; he did not make any big changes in his game style. Instead, he stuck with his guns and showed that he was capable of being the man best suited to challenge Djokovic by reaching the final of the first three Majors this season. For Murray, continuity and stability have always been the building blocks for believing that he can win more Majors and etch his name deeper into the tennis history books. The resumption of his relationship with Ivan Lendl coupled with the ability to outlast nearly every player on the tour from the baseline has driven Murray to a third Major title, putting him on a level of his own. If he hadn’t been able to capture a second Wimbledon crown, perhaps the casual fan would have thought that Murray’s status as a two-time Grand Slam champion hardly differed from the likes of Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic, and Juan Martin del Potro. But unlike the aforementioned three, Murray is a Gold Medal winner and not just a one-time spoiler of the Roger, Rafa, Novak victory train.
Furthermore, Murray has proven that he truly does belong in the conversation with Roger, Rafa, and Novak by distancing himself from the other players who have won Grand Slam titles in between the combined 43 titles won by probably three of the five greatest players in the history of the sport. Having already played in eleven combined finals at the four Majors, Andy seems to have found the recipe to elevate him to the next tier of tennis greats. This tier features a group of legends who had extremely successful careers but failed to demonstrate the level of longevity exhibited by candidates for the Greatest of All Time status. Should he be able to maintain or improve his current form for the next several years, Andy Murray will most certainly be on the same level as the likes of John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander, and his own coach Ivan Lendl. These champions each won six to eight Majors but were often overshadowed by each other or other greats of their time such as Pete Sampras. From here on out, if Murray can match Djokovic’s success until the end of their respective careers, including capturing world number one, Murray will have achieved a career similar to that of Andre Agassi. Featuring a potential Career Grand Slam with a Singles Gold Medal, Murray has a great deal more to work for in the latter stages of his career.
While the skeptics will say that putting Murray into the conversation with those greats is simply an overreaction to a first Grand Slam victory in three years, there is no reason why the Scot cannot double his current total of three Grand Slam titles. Despite being less than a year from reaching the vaunted age of 30 in men’s tennis, Murray has proven to us that he is in prime physical shape to continue contending for at least the next several years. With very few rising stars showing promise of winning multiple Slams the way Roger and Rafa did in the past decade, the next few years beckon a continuation of the Murray – Djokovic rivalry. It may not be much of a rivalry in the sense that Djokovic leads the head to head in Grand Slam finals by a score of five to two, but we’ve seen spurts where Murray has outplayed the Serb on the biggest stage. Look no further than the first set of this year’s Roland Garros final where Murray was playing more aggressively than Djokovic and had the world number one nervous and on his heels. The pivotal moment took place when Djokovic settled down mentally, and Murray began to show his usual frustration as a result of not being able to put a stranglehold on the match.
Hence, the biggest question mark for Murray in his quest to even the rivalry with Djokovic is his mindset. On the court it can be argued that both are machines who never miss and make their opponents engage in highly questionable shot selection to win the point. These men are not only the steadiest from the baseline in the history of the game, but they are the ideal prototypes of today’s modern tennis player. However, when the two face off against each other and most of their strengths cancel out, the mental edge is what ultimately defines the difference between someone like Djokovic who has twelve Grand Slams and Murray who only has three. We have seen Djokovic outlast Murray mentally on so many occasions that it seems like a broken record. On one end of the court, Andy barks through a towel at his entourage in disgust while Novak nods his head while wiping his sweat away and preparing to convert on another break point opportunity.
Even though body language is not the only determinant of who has the mental edge on the court, lopsided scores in many of their primetime matches have revealed why Murray needs to find a different attitude if he is to beat Djokovic on a day when Djokovic is at his best. After all, it can be said that in Murray’s two Grand Slam final victories against him (2012 US Open and 2013 Wimbledon), Djokovic was nowhere near the level he is capable of exhibiting when playing for a championship. Should Murray be able to display against Djokovic the sort of confidence and composure he shows when playing the rest of his opponents, then he will be able to get over the hump of losing focus against his rival in the most pivotal moments of crucial matches. And if anyone can implant a more positive attitude in Andy’s head geared toward beating Djokovic, it’s Ivan Lendl. He used his career experience to help Murray win Grand Slams after having previously lost many finals, and now he can help guide Murray toward finding a way to beat the man who always seems to be a step ahead of him.
Undoubtedly now the second best player in the world and surging after a commanding win at Wimbledon, Murray enters the second half of the season on a high that he has never before felt. After winning his first Wimbledon, Andy was stuck in limbo not knowing where to proceed having attained his career goal. This time around, however, Murray can move forward with the Rio Olympics and US Open in his sights. With Djokovic’s loss in the third round at Wimbledon casting a cloud over his mental and physical state going into the second half of the season, now is as good a time as ever for Murray to take advantage of his bout of strong play and get another big win against his main rival on the stage that will define whether he can reach the elite group of players mentioned earlier. With no Wimbledon hangover in the rearview mirror, look for Andy Murray to play the kind of tennis that will elevate him to a level we did not think he could reach.