By David Zakhodin
Andy Murray Strikes Gold Once Again
Several weeks ago, we made the observation that Andy Murray had turned a major leaf in the book that told the story of his career by capturing his second Wimbledon title. Entering the Rio Olympics, much of the focus was on the return of Rafael Nadal from injury and on Novak Djokovic’s quest to win gold, the final missing ingredient to a career resume that rivaled the other Big Four members. After a week of exhilarating tennis supplemented by raucous Olympic crowds, Andy Murray was the man who came out on top and defended his Gold medal from the London games four years prior. Yes, one may be able to argue that this was an anticipated result following Djokovic’s exit in the first round of the tournament, but the win in Rio for Murray was anything but smooth.
Trailing in the third set in the round of 16 and quarterfinals against Fabio Fognini and Steve Johnson, Murray dug deep and relied on his consistency and comfort in playing long grinding points on a slow hard court surface to outlast his big hitting opponents. While not against the highest ranked players in the world, these two wins exhibited the sort of confidence and heart that we have recently seen develop in Murray’s game as a result of his renewed partnership with Ivan Lendl. Put that together with all the years of hard work that won him three Majors and a Gold Medal, and it was no shock to see the Brit standing atop the podium once again. Even more impressive than his stability and endurance was Murray’s ability to adapt to a completely new environment when representing his country. In previous historic instances where he won the Gold Medal in 2012 and clinched Davis Cup in 2015, he was playing on home turf. This time around he had to deal with a relatively hostile South American crowd who roared every time Juan Martin Del Potro wound up for an astonishing forehand winner. Unperturbed by the noise and distraction, Murray won without producing anything flashy and etched his name into tennis history books by becoming the first man to win two singles Gold Medals.
Filled with confidence and playing the best tennis of his life, Andy Murray could enter the U.S. Open as a co-favorite with Novak Djokovic. With the world number one struggling with a recurring wrist problem, Andy Murray may for the first time enter a Slam with an upper hand over the rival who has bested him so many times before on the big stage. Winning under strenuous circumstances in Rio is an example of a moment that will give him the mental edge when it comes to staying strong mentally on the big points in a potential final matchup against Djokovic. We said victory at Wimbledon would give Murray a world of opportunity going forward. He certainly made use of that opportunity and further enhanced his resume to equal that of Courier. Now, he is one step closer to becoming a member of the Becker – Edberg – Wilander – Lendl club. Having won multiple Majors and singles Gold Medals, the ultimate goal for Murray is to now make a run for world number one. He may be enormously talented, but it will be stability and continuity that help his campaign to become the world’s greatest.
A Resounding Return for Juan Martin Del Potro
From one U.S. Open Champion to another, it was Juan Martin Del Potro who caught the immediate attention of the tennis world when he upset Novak Djokovic in two tiebreaks in the first round. He may have raised some eyebrows when defeating Stan Wawrinka in the second round of Wimbledon, but it wasn’t until he deterred the Serb from capturing his career goal that people really started believing that the Argentine had truly completed the treacherous comeback from multiple surgeries to the left wrist. Many may have even expected him to lose on the very next day simply because of the amount that was taken out of him mentally in the match against Djokovic. Del Potro proved us all wrong and made an historic run to the final that featured an incredible victory in the semifinal against the surging Rafael Nadal who had already captured Gold in doubles. And when we thought Del Potro would have nothing left in the tank for a three out of five set final against Murray, he surprised us all once again by playing some of his best tennis.
When we think of Del Potro playing his best tennis, we flash back to the 2009 U.S. Open final where he hit running forehand winners from all corners of the court that Roger Federer couldn’t even have dreamt of touching. After his first wrist surgery, he returned to the Tour bludgeoning forehands on every surface and reclaimed his position in the top eight. And when we thought he could no longer overcome two surgeries or play winning tennis by hardly hitting over his backhand, he surprised us once again this week in Rio. At Wimbledon we clearly saw Del Potro struggle with his fitness after not being able to back up the big win against Wawrinka. In Rio he fed off the energy of the South American crowd that witnessed its first ever Olympic competition. One of the many reasons why the Olympic games have tended to produce fluky results that feature top players like Djokovic losing in the first round is because of the Davis Cup-like atmosphere that the fans create.
The reserves of energy that Del Potro was able to channel from his supporters are what allowed him to continue running down every ball in the corner and slapping 100 mile per hour forehands past the likes of Djokovic, Nadal, and Murray. Despite feeding off the crowd and not having to play three out of five sets in his first five matches, it remains remarkable to watch a man who has missed the better part of two calendar seasons improve his bronze medal result in 2012 to a silver medal in 2016. For this there is only one explanation: Juan Martin Del Potro’s forehand is one of the greatest if not the greatest singular shot in the last decade of men’s tennis. We’ve seen so many high quality players of his stature like Milos Raonic and Marin Cilic struggle to consistently break through against the Big Four because of their inability to back up the strength of their serve or play well on return. What distinguishes Del Potro in this regard is his movement and ability to find the forehand from any part of the court. Once he gets that forehand, he can end the point on his terms and make the greatest defensive players in Djokovic and Murray feel utterly helpless. This combination of movement and shot-making is what enabled him to win the U.S. Open and two Olympic medals at very different points in his career.
In hindsight, we should not have been at all surprised by Del Potro’s forehand leading him to the Silver Medal position on the podium. However, when a player goes through as much mental and physical agony that Del Potro went through during his elongated absence from competitive tennis, we question what he is still capable of when he returns. Following this weekend, it can be argued that this run to the final of Rio was even more impressive than Del Potro’s 2009 victory at the U.S. Open. In an era where success has been largely defined by the stability and consistency from the baseline exhibited by Murray and Djokovic, it is extremely rare and surprising to see a player with one signature shot reach at least the semifinal of all four Majors and become a two-time Olympic medalist. With the results of the Rio Olympics, Juan Martin Del Potro has firmly cemented himself as the sixth best player of this generation (behind the Big Four and Wawrinka). If he is able to stay healthy, Del Potro will continue moving up the rankings and using his big forehand to contend for future Grand Slam titles.