Winning One for Them
WIMBLEDON, England—It was never going to be easy with Andy Murray, was it? Future generations of British sports fans who look back at clips of the 2013 men’s final at Wimbledon will see a cloudless 80 degree day, a Royal Box with a beaming prime minister in the front row, a straight-set scoreline, and that rarest of all rarities: a homegrown champion. But they’ll miss one crucial element of this seemingly idyllic scene on Centre Court: the unbearable tension.
That’s what filled the arena, as well as its 15,000 occupants, as Murray attempted, and attempted, and attempted to finish off Novak Djokovic and become the first British man to win Wimbledon since 1936. A few minutes earlier, as Murray walked out to serve for the championship at 5-4 in the third set, the crowd had stood and chanted his name as lustily as anything has ever been chanted in these polite environs. When he won the first three points over a demoralized Djokovic, the atmosphere became outright giddy. Shouts and laughter echoed through the stadium as Murray tossed the ball to serve at 40-0—the moment had come at last.
But anticipation quickly turned to dread when Djokovic, as only he can do, refused to surrender the final point and let the celebrations begin. By the time 40-0 had melted to deuce, and then break point for Djokovic, a fearful silence reigned. The only thing you could hear at Murray’s end of the court was the sound of him huffing and puffing as he took the towel from the ball boy.
“I won the first three points, and it was the hardest game ever,” Murray said later. “It’s the hardest few points I’ve had to play in my life...My head was kind of everywhere. He made some unbelievable shots.”
Could the Curse of Fred Perry, the last British man to win Wimbledon, survive even this? If you’ve followed Andy Murray’s career for any length of time, though, you may have suspected that this moment of crisis would arrive, and that in the end he would overcome it.
First of all, the match had been a little too straightforward to this point. Murray and Djokovic, with their similar mastery of the defensive end of the court, rarely play one-sided matches. As former British player John Lloyd said afterward, the last result anyone predicted was a three-set win for the home favorite. More than that, though, Murray’s career has always been a treacherous, stop-and-start climb up the tennis mountaintop. It's one where very little, other than his ability to hit and run after a tennis ball, has come easily.
Murray was a prodigy and a top junior, but his pro career has been less about his talent than the dedicated, methodical way he has gone about getting the most out of it. He arrived on tour in the shadow of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. He lost his first four Grand Slam finals. He lost three straight semifinals and a final at Wimbledon. He heard criticism from all corners, including from Federer, about his passive playing style and miserable demeanor. He tried different coaches. He took hard defeats. He seemed stuck at the back of the Big 4, an unlucky victim of the greatest era in tennis history. But all along Murray kept the long run in focus. Even when he was a teenager, his first coach said, he “wasn’t interested in free time, he just wanted to work.” That teetotaling conscientiousness and quiet drive to improve never wavered.
“I think I persevered,” Murray said today, when all of the work had paid off in the biggest prize of all. “That’s really been it, the story of my career. I had a lot of of tough losses, but the one thing I would say is every year I always improved a little bit. They weren’t major improvements, massive changes, but every year my ranking was going in the right direction.”
This year, maybe for the first time, people here recognized that Murray had improved to the point where his Wimbledon campaign didn't have to end in tragedy. “The atmosphere in Center Court,” Murray said, “was different to what I’ve experienced here in the past.” The difference, in my opinion, was optimism. However he interpreted the energy in the building on Sunday, it fueled Murray to run down every drive and drop shot Djokovic threw at him. Murray came back from a 1-4 deficit in the second set and a 2-4 deficit in the third. Late in the third, he seemed to turn into a permanent blur across the grass. Dashing the length of the court, his racquet coiled beneath him, Murray flicked one ball after another past Djokovic and watched the chalk fly as it touched down on the baseline.
“He was getting some incredible shots on the stretch and running down the drop shots,” a quietly gutted Djokovic said in his press conference. “He was all over the court. He played fantastic tennis, no question about it. He deserved to win.”
As for Djokovic himself, he said he wasn’t “patient enough” when he had the lead, or in the “decisive moments.” He was agitated through much of the first two sets, as he was when he lost to Murray at the U.S. Open last year. And he spent a fair amount of time and energy fighting with chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani, just as he had with chair umpire Pascal Maria in the semifinals at the French Open.
Djokovic retains his No. 1 ranking and remains the tour’s player to beat on a week-by-week basis, but he hasn’t been a dominant No. 1 over the last two years. His record in Grand Slam finals is now 6-5, and this may have been his most disappointing performance in any of them. Djokovic cited his impatience as his main problem, and he confessed to overdoing the drop shot, but I also felt like he took too long to settle in, to burn off his nervous energy. It was only when he was down two sets and a break in the third that he relaxed and played something approaching his normal free-flowing game.
“The atmosphere was incredible for him,” Djokovic said, allowing himself the only smile of his presser. “For me, not so much.”
In the end, Murray persevered through the final game, through the tension, through his exhaustion, through Djokovic’s last-gasp brilliance, through the Curse of Wimbledon. He fought off three break points with his own brilliant shot-making, and watched as Djokovic finally sent a backhand into the net on the fourth championship point. Then Murray did something strange: Rather than look toward his friends and supporters, he turned toward the press box behind him and shouted with joy in our direction. Why, of all people, would he celebrate with the media, his longtime pursuers and tormentors, first?
“I was staring in the direction of quite a few of the guys in the press,” Murray said with a laugh when he was asked about it later. “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.”
A little later, Murray, cradling the winner’s trophy, was asked by Sue Barker what the fan support had meant to him. (See his speech here.)
“I obviously wanted to win this for myself,” Murray said, “but I understand how much everyone else wanted to see a British winner at Wimbledon, so I hope you guys enjoyed it, I tried my best.”
Then Murray spoke about his coach. “This one is especially for Ivan as well,” he said of Ivan Lendl, who grinned as broadly as anyone could remember him grinning (if anyone could remember him grinning at all). “I know he did everything he could to try to win this while he was playing, so I was glad to help him out.”
The press, his country, his coach, and his mom, whom he heard "squealing" behind him during his visit to the player's box: Murray wanted to win this for himself, but he also wanted to win it for thousands of others. That includes the people of his hometown, Dunblane. Before the tournament, Murray said that he hopes his accomplishments can help make the past feel a little farther away for them.
In this sense, Murray, whatever his flaws, was always the perfect man to end the curse of Fred Perry. There were his natural skills, of course, which were obvious when he was a teenager. But there was also his conscientiousness, his younger-brotherish desire to please, and his inner drive, which ended up being unshakable enough to take on the burdens of being a British player at Wimbledon. He had the patience to answer the media’s questions after every match, and the strength to run around a tennis court with the biggest, heaviest, rudest monkey in sports on his back. Rather than break him down, the Curse of Fred Perry inspired him.
During his presser, Murray was told by Bud Collins of Perry's longstanding, forever-frustrated desire to see another British men's champion. Inevitably, Murray was also asked, “What would you tell Fred Perry if he was alive now?”
Murray could have dismissed the question, but like everything else, he took it seriously and tried to find an answer that wasn't phony or glib.
“He’s someone that I’ve spoken to a lot of people about,” Murray said. “I’ve met various people from his family. It’s a weird one. It’s a name that I’ve heard so much over the course of my career. It’s a shame I never got to meet him.”
Instead, Murray had a chance to do something that, in his eyes, must have been even better: He got to win one for him.