by Pete Bodo
It was supposed to happen just like this, only one month earlier. One month earlier in any number of recent years, and you could argue it might even go as far back as those painful Tim Henman years. When Andy Murray of Great Britain, with a few extra miles per hour on his serve thanks to the British crowd (as he would tell us later), hit that final, match-ending ace against Roger Federer of Switzerland to claim the Olympic games singles gold medal, the crowd on Henman Hill erupted, like some complex pointillist canvas leaping to life on the museum wall.
Murray's reaction at the moment of victory was interesting mainly because it was so unexpectedly restrained. He bent over and eased into a crouch, as if his back had suddenly gone out, or he was about to get sick after a rousing night up at the Fox and Dog pub in Wimbledon village.
In a sport where even a Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal is given to dramatically falling to his knees or pitching over flat on his back as if shot, with an accompanying scream, Murray chose not to meet his long-deferred moment of greatness with theatricality. Besides, as a man who had yet to win a Grand Slam, and who has been a Grand Slam whipping boy to those experts at falling down in the throes of ecstasy, he seemed to sense that such a demonstration would be a little too much like taunting or trash-talking a great, great player. This was Federer's final dream in tennis, and probably his last chance to realize it. And it unraveled so quickly over the course of the surprisingly easy 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 win by Murray on the Centre Court at Wimbledon that you had to feel for the beaten 17-time Grand Slam champion.
Not that the Hill Dwellers at that moment cared a whit about all that. All they knew was that Murray had won; a Brit was the last man standing at Wimbledon. Earlier in the event, when seats in the stadium were readily available, the crowd on the Hill was often sparse and rarely very expressive or vocal. Today, though, it looked like as if had re-convened the entire group that had turned out to watch the same two men battle for the Wimbledon title just a month ago, with Federer the winner. I wished they had been those same folks; it would make the world seem a fairer place. For this time, instead of an enormous collective groan at match-point, and dumbfounded looks into each other's teary eyes, the HIll Dwellers responded to the final point with a triumphant roar — a burst of joy so voluble that it had to bring a smile to your face, unless it was painted red with a white cross across your nose.
Immediately after the match, commentator John McEnroe asked Murray how it felt to win the Olympic singles event as compared to, say, a Grand Slam. Murray answered with his customary mixture of frankness and equivocation. "Well I don't know how winning a Slam feels," he drawled. "I know how this feels and it's just great."
Murray played a spectacularly good match, and you could almost be persuaded to think that some of the glitzy Williams sisters hip-hop magic had rubbed off on the pasty and often gruff Scot. It isn't often that either Venus or Serena is the warm-up act for anyone, but today they were the twin table-setter for Murray on Centre Court. They added to their astonishing record as doubles player with a 6-4, 6-4 win over Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka of the Czech Republic. The sisters play infrequently, but when they play, they win. Period. Punto Finale. End of story.
The Williams sisters became the first players of either sex to win four gold medals (both of them have a singles gold and three golds in doubles), and the doubles victory made Serena just the second woman (Steffi Graf is the other one) to record a career "Golden Slam." With yesterday's terrific whipping of Maria Sharapova in the women's singles final, Serena has won each of the Grand Slam titles at least once — as well as an Olympic singles gold. Imagine how good these ladies could be if, like men's doubles gold medalists Bob and Mike Bryan, they actually bothered to get together to play more than a couple of times a year.
Murray played the match that every one in the long string of coaches he's had knew was in him, but the player himself seemed to withhold — sometimes, seemingly to the point of perversity — as if he were intent on extending the "will he or won't he" drama. Granted, nobody on the planet beats a Federer when he's firing on all cylinders the way Murray did today, but it isn't like Murray has had all the luck when it comes to unlocking the door to excellent form and mental and emotional stability on the day of big finals. That record-setting, 4 hour-and-26 minute semifinal with Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals on Friday certainly left the Federer blade with a dulled edge, but he had no one to blame for that but Federer himself, or Delpo.
This match was over in under two hours (1:56), but the single, towering turning point came shortly after the orchestra had stopped tuning up and begun to play. After Murray won the first set and leaped to a 2-0 lead, Federer threatened to break right back. But in a game lasting nearly 15 minutes, Murray fought off six break points and capitalized on Federer's uncharacteristically error-prone tendencies to somehow escape with the game — and a lead that, at 6-2, 3-0 suddenly looked awfully large.
By then, Federer's brows were knitted up and his default expression a sour one. It was the kind of frown you sometimes find on a Chinese wall hanging, or mural. I couldn't help but wonder if Murray, so long a master at encouraging his opponents with transparent, self-sabotaging body language, noticed. You know Roger Federer is in trouble when he holds his right arm fully extended along his side, racquet face parallel to the ground as if it were a frying pan, and he stares at the pattern of his string as if they constituted a ruined omelet.
One of the main complaints about Murray has been that he's too much the unpredictable subversive; too addicted to doing something clever and unexpected to take full advantage of his 6-foot-3 height and sinewy power to take the game to his opponents. Today, he satisfied those critics, while you could almost say the opposite of Federer. Too often, Federer seemed willing to bide his time, trusting his superior shot making to flummox Murray as soon as the Scot began to get get coy. But Murray didn't get coy, except on one or two negligible occasions. Today, he was the straight man.
Murray kept turning down the screws, and as he did Federer began looking too defensive, too willing to entrust control of the match — or lack thereof — to Murray. And that put him into awkward positions that further contributed to the shellacking he absorbed on a day when he committed 31 unforced errors to 17 by Murray, and made three fewer winners (24-27). When you lost those two battles and also that of the second serve (Federer converted just 37 percent of his second serve points, while Murray's rate was a sparkling 63 percent), you have the makings of a perfect storm.
About midway through the third set McEnroe made an interesting observation after Murray pulled off a slick surprise attack-and-volley winner. He said that given Murray's mobility, reach, skill and touch, he doesn't come close to using his volley/net game to full advantage, adding that it was the next frontier in Murray's development. That sounds pretty good to me. Murray did win 9 of his 12 net points today, but that figure is always deceptive because Murray is still among those players who approaches the net only on a sure thing (unless he finds himself drawn up there inadvertently).
One other factor surely came into play on Centre Court today, and that was the pressure — or lack thereof — that Murray felt. In that sense, he may have been lucky that this edition of Olympic tennis unrolled at Wimbledon. As a part of something much larger than itself, and with the familiar narrative of Wimbledon (last British man to win, and all that yadda-yadda-yadda) neutralized, it wasn't all about Murray in SW19 this past week for a change. He had more breathing room. He had more chances to relax. As he said afterward: "I didn't feel all that nervous. I spoke with (my coach) Ivan (Lendl) after Wimbledon and he told me, 'You'll never play under more pressure than you did during the Wimbledon final.' That helped me today."
Murray's work wasn't finished, though. He was next on Centre in a mixed doubles gold-medal match, partnered with Laura Robson against 35-year old doubles specialist Max "the Beast" Mirnyi and women's No. 1 Victoria Azarenka.
Murray and Robson were unseeded, and had peeled a few big names out of the draw in the preliminary rounds — Hewitt and Stosur of of Australia, and Lisicki and Kas of Germany (conquerors of second-seeded Americans Bob Bryan and Liezel Huber). The Brits won the first set, 6-2, but the pressure on Robson, who's just 18, began to build quickly. It didn't help her cause that by the middle of the second set Mirnyi, the 6-foot-5 Beast, was fully living up to his name, firing point-blank shots at Robson wherever he could find her. No complaints though, these are big boys and girls, all of whom know what they've signed on for.
At one point in that second set, I found myself wondering: What could be better than being Andy Murray at this moment? You just won a gold an hour ago in singles with a win over Roger Federer, and you've got the Belarusians on the ropes. You're on track for another gold before a packed house and who's gonna care if you don't pull it off? Life just doesn't get any better. . .
Turns out I was wrong. Eventually, Mirnyi and Azarenka wore down Robson and Murray, who were unable to reverse the tide despite surviving two match points before the Belarusians salted away the super tiebreaker, 10-8. Walking off the court, Murray wasn't basking in the applause cascading down all around him. He was frowning and smacking the net with the head of his racquet, cleary frustrated by how things had worked out, but too much the self-possessed, decent guy to get too demonstrative about it. I suppose he's read that famous Kipling line about "triumph and disaster" on the sign above the entrance to Centre Court too often for it to be any different.