As Andy Murray rolled through the first three points in that now historic 10th game of the third set of yesterday’s Wimbledon final, I thought: “Somehow, Andy Murray trying to become the first Brit to win back-to-back Wimbledon titles since Fred Perry did it 78 years ago just will not have the same ring.”
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that while it seemed like a semi-clever line to throw out there, it pointed toward a significant condition. Whatever are we to do now that Murray has become the first British subject to triumph at Wimbledon since Perry won his third consecutive title there in 1936?
Since the dawn of the Open era, we have been sustained by this one constant theme—this singular and seemingly forever bank-able story line going into “The Championships.” Given the situation, it would never take a break, never go away even for one fortnight. How could it? And now—poof!— it’s gone. Blasted into oblivion by that running forehand pass that Murray drilled by Djokovic after he had blown three match points, and then survived two break points, to put a fitting improbable and stomach-churning end to the tournament. Say good-bye then, to a theme for the ages.
How ponderous and volatile had that theme become? Let me fly this by you, and call me absurdly fanciful if you will. But I swear I could feel the hand of history on the grip of Murray's Head YouTek Radical racquet yesterday. When Murray told Sue Barker during the trophy presentation ceremony that he couldn’t actually remember much of that last game, I took his remark as gospel truth.
As fit and strong and indomitable a champion as Djokovic is, even he was ultimately unable to repel the gravitational pull of history. This moment was bound to come. And it did not come easily, or in a way that in any sense devalues the achievement, or makes it seem a fluke that was bound to happen, mostly because 77 years is a long, long time.
Andy Murray is a hell of a tennis player, and I think that made it even more difficult, if vastly more credible, that this is how the saga ended. His accomplishment wasn’t just a Wimbledon breakthrough by a Brit, it was the demolition of a myth. And once it began to topple, it came crashing down and smashed into a thousand pieces quickly. As Murray said afterward,
“The last sort of thirty minutes have been a bit of a blur really. I mean, yeah, from four-two down in the third set to now—I don't know I don't really know what to say just now. I think just how that last game went. . . my head was kind of everywhere. I mean, some of the shots he came up with were unbelievable. . .Yeah, I think that's why at the end of the match I didn't quite know what was going on.”
The hand of history was closing a chapter, that’s what. And it’s a chapter that boasted compelling subplots, like the repeated, ultimately doomed assaults Tim Henman made on the basic obstacle, as well as the unexpected victory by a British woman, Virginia Wade, in that Wimbledon centenary year of 1977. That latter one really made the plight of British men’s tennis seem dire.
If we’re going to review this story, let’s start at the beginning. For our purposes, that’s the dawn of the Open era—1968. Did you know that a British player grabbed the headlines at the first tournament of the new, professional era—thereby helping launch a sequence of events that would heighten the shame of British tennis as the game exploded as an international spectacle?
Mark Cox, a fair-skinned, curly-haired Oxbridge man with a deft touch, became the first amateur to beat a pro when, in May of 1968, he knocked the redoubtable Pancho Gonzalez out of the British Hard Court Championships at Bournemouth. At the time (the late 1960s and early 70s), Bournemouth was comparable in status to today’s Masters 1000 events. Cox subdued Gonzalez in five sets over the course of two-and-a-quarter hours. The future looked rosy indeed for British tennis in this new “Open” era.
Most of us know what happened next, mainly because all really you needed to know you was told every blessed year in the summertime—when will the British produce a male Wimbledon champion again?
While that message was slowly being shaped and chiseled into stone, Britain produced some serviceable players. Cox himself reached No. 13 when the ATP computer rankings were launched, and John Feaver, John Lloyd, Buster Mottram, Greg Rusedski (a born-again Brit, originally from Canada), Roger Taylor, Henman, and a handful of lesser known British men all had solid careers.
The best of them was Taylor. In his own era he was every bit as good as Henman would be in his, or Murray had been until yesterday. A Yorkshireman from Sheffield, the swarthy, heartthrob Taylor was ranked as high as No. 11. Had he been able to advance beyond the semis at Wimbledon on any of three occasions when he got that far (two of which were early in the Open era, and one of which was the result of an upset of Rod Laver), Henman and Murray might have been spared a lot of stress and heartbreak. And of that there was plenty, as both of the younger players can attest.
So it wasn’t so surprising that shortly after winning, Murray went over to the BBC broadcast booth at court level to acknowledge and share a moment with the commentator Henman. But even before that, Murray inadvertently revealed just how much the hype did get to him when his first reaction to winning the title was to turn and stare at, of all places, the press box.
When he was asked by an innocent scribe why his first looked hadn’t been to the player guest box, Murray replied: “I was staring in the direction of quite a few of the guys in the press (Murray smiled as he said that). I think, yeah, there's a subconscious part of me (that made me do that).
“Obviously I've had a difficult relationship at times over the years. The last few years have been much better. I mean, I know for you guys it's important that I win this tournament. You know, I tried. Obviously, I tried my best. I worked as hard as I could to do it.
“I wasn't thinking before the match point if I win this I'm going to look at the press, but I finished the point and, yeah, that was just what my eyes were kind of fixed on.”
Truth be told, the theme Murray destroyed didn’t really pick up steam, or the kind of poignancy it would later attain, until about the late 1970s, when hellions Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, along with Bjorn Borg, that icy, reticent pro from the unlikely outpost of Sodertalje, Sweden, suddenly made it seem that the earnest, sporting, hail-fellow-well-met British were unfit to win their own tournament.
The excesses of the Open era and the characters who helped catapult the once staid game of tennis to the forefront of the global sporting audience’s mind created all manner of prejudices and hype. The theme that emerged from the basic incompetence of British players at Wimbledon proved to be one of the few narratives with truly great legs. It took on a life of its own, with numerous supporting themes. I remember writing a major feature 30 or more years ago, probing the question, “Why can’t the British play tennis?” Given the relentless focus on personality by the media, this original question gradually morphed into “Why can’t the British produce a male Wimbledon champion?”
That theme truly built and finally attained critical mass with the emergence of Murray as an Olympic and Grand Slam champion. That’s why I would caution anyone not to write off the role that something Jungian or inexplicably fated played in the Wimbledon final. For surely it was remarkable how Murray fell behind 2-4 in that final set, after leading 2-love, love-30 with Djokovic serving, yet still managed to win the set, and with it the match. That wasn’t the Djokovic we’ve grown accustomed to out there. No way, no how.
My head tells me Murray played great, and that Djokovic was tired. My heart tells me that something bigger than both of them, and bigger than us, was going on.
I suppose we’ll never know. And at this point it doesn’t matter. The spell is broken, but as glad as I am for Murray and his countryman I somehow feel a little sad. An era in tennis is ended, and it isn’t for the usual reason—because this or that great player is retiring. Those endings are all about one person, and there’s a sameness to them, as well as a constant supply of them. This was something different, a narrative that touched numerous lives and issues, as well as the character and disposition of a breed of player and his nation.
Really, it’s hard for me to imagine what will replace this story line at Wimbledon next year. Sure, there will be plenty of others. There always have been. This one, though, has been the one you could count on, and in a good way. The one you could return to in the same way that you go back to re-read a favorite poem that is new each time you read it.
Or maybe, after grappling with this theme in one way or another for nearly 40 years, I just feel a little old and empty.