The Top 10 Matches of 2013

No. 10 of '13: Lucky 77

Monday, December 09, 2013 /by

Each year, when I begin researching the best matches of the tennis season, I quickly come to three realizations. The first is that there are always a lot of good matches; even a Top 25 list wouldn’t cover everything worth reliving. The second is that I always forget as many of them as I remember—I watched all of Serena Williams' win over Petra Kvitova from Doha, and all of Rafael Nadal's win over Ernests Gulbis from the fifth row in Indian Wells, yet I didn’t recall a single point of either match until I looked them up on YouTube today.

The third realization, which is also easy to forget, is that the players go through a lifetime's worth of emotional ups and downs each season. Novak Djokovic, Victoria Azarenka, even Richard Gasquet: It’s amazing how many highs and lows they experienced, and bounced back from, over the course of the last 11 months. No wonder Boris Becker said tennis players lives’ should be measured in dog years.

This season was no exception. From Camila Giorgi’s seize-the-night win over Caroline Wozniacki at the U.S. Open to Tommy Robredo’s tragically colossal comeback against Gael Monfils in Paris, good matches came in all shapes and sizes in 2013. For the next two weeks, I’ll recount one of my Top 10, in ascending order of excellence, each day. Here's No. 10.

*****

Andy Murray’s win over Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon wasn’t the best-played or most competitive match of 2013—not by a long shot. But it will likely be remembered the longest and re-watched the most. Murray, as you surely know, became the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years, turning a quixotic quest into an heroic one in the space of a fortnight.

That still might not be enough to land this one-sided straight-setter on your Top 10 list for the season. It’s on mine partially for personal reasons. I watched each of Murray’s matches over that fortnight from the same spot in the Centre Court press box. As an out-of-towner, my seat was on the fringes of the media area, where the press sits side by side with paying customers. This had its upside: Each time Murray played, I got to hear the joyous and pained reactions from a different set of fans. There was the woman who sat on the edge of her seat, her hands crossed prayerfully in front of her mouth, for the entirety of Murray's five-set win over Fernando Verdasco. A couple of days later, there was a group of young men behind me who had a Pimm’s or two (or three) too many during Murray’s win over Jerzy Janowicz. During the final, I sat next to veteran British sportswriter Barry Newcombe, who calmly kept score like it was any other match, and expressed his hopes for the Scot with a suitably superstitious reserve. When it was over, we both shot up in our seats and confronted the most shocking sight of the afternoon: Murray fist-pumping right at us. 

It was a lucky thrill to be in Centre Court that day, but I hadn’t watched the match the way most people watched it, through a video screen, until this morning. Here are a few thoughts on the clip above, and what Murray’s win looks and feels like six months later and 3,500 miles away in New York.

*****

—In the video's first millisecond, we’re treated to the most inexplicably common, and irritating, commentator mistake in tennis: Pronouncing Djokovic “Jockavich.” 

Broadcasters: In this brief clip from the Australian Open, if you listen closely, you can hear Novak himself explaining why "Djo" is pronounced “Joe” to Channel 7's Jim Courier.

—Moving on to the match itself, we get some early foreshadowing of what’s to come: Djokovic drops a gimme volley into the bottom of the net, and loses another point after failing to put away an easy overhead. Murray, meanwhile, is in a relaxed groove on his sometimes-troublesome forehand, and he’s confident enough to hit a winning overhead on a bounce from behind the baseline.

—Yet Murray is working hard, and he's soon exhausted by the combination of hot weather, long points, and raw nerves. This match went just three sets, but by the end both players had ice packs on their necks during changeovers. 

Seeing the rallies again, without the suspense, it’s clear that Murray had all the answers that day—most of it was skill, but lady luck was there for him as well. His backhand down the line, both the drive and sidespin versions, was clicking. He hit an ace that clipped a millimeter of the sideline to save a break point at 3-4 in the second set. He had the bulk of the let cords go his way. And when he was on the run, Murray seemed to be literally pushed forward by the energy of the crowd—there were half a dozen balls that he tracked down that I was sure he wouldn’t reach.

—As for that crowd, it was as loud as I've heard in Centre Court; you might even use the word intimidating. Unlike last year, the audience seemed to believe that victory was in their man's grasp; even the presence of that legendary jinx, prime minister David Cameron, wasn't enough to dim their hopes. And while they lifted Murray, they were equally effective in keeping Djokovic subdued. The Serb seemed hemmed in, unable to relax and be himself, the whole day. He built a lead in the second set, but just when we thought he was going to even things up and turn it into the marathon most of us had predicted, he let that lead slip.

At Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Djokovic lost finals after winning long, five-set semifinals. He had the tougher road than his opponents both times, but it’s no excuse. Winning a tournament isn’t about just winning one match; you need to win as efficiently as possible along the way to be at your best at the end. Djokovic had a great season, but it was also one defined by losses in his biggest matches.

—That doesn’t mean Djokovic went down without a fight here. The final game of this match was easily the most heart-stopping of the season, and I got nervous watching it again today. I can’t remember any game that veered so quickly from the heights of giddy anticipation, when Murray was up 40-0, to the depths of silent, sweaty-palm fear, when he went down break point.

It was hard to blame Murray. Djokovic showed again why he’s so tough when he’s basically given up on a match. Suddenly, everything worked for him—he cracked a backhand return winner, lasered a sharp-angle passing shot from his shoe-tops, and eased a half-volley across the net cord for another winner. I hadn’t realized that Murray very nearly hit a backhand long on one of Djokovic’s break points. Would Murray have won Wimbledon if that ball had landed out? It seems like a 50/50 proposition now.

We’ll never know, because his backhand was called in. From there, Murray came up with a forehand winner on the next shot, saved another break point with a big forehand and a volley, and managed to tune out the home fans, who had temporarily taken leave of their senses, and their manners, to cry out in the middle of rallies. The afternoon had all seemed a little too good to be true until that point, but Murray earned his Wimbledon in the last game.

—Then he threw his hat down, looked up to the press section, and pumped his fists like a crazy man. I know he did this because (1) he happened to be facing in that direction, and (2) he has said he has trouble controlling his emotions when he looks at his family and friends in the crowd. But this was still my favorite moment of the 2013 season, because it was something different, a completely unexpected way for a Grand Slam winner to react these days. Instead of locking eyes and sharing tears with his team in the players’ box, Murray first saluted two different groups that he said had supported him through the rough moments there: The British media, and the fans. You don’t see it in this clip, but Murray high-fived the spectators sitting in the front row in that corner of the court. As he said in his victory speech, he won Wimbledon for everyone there, and he "hoped [we] enjoyed it." It was his sense of obligation, to do his best to end the curse of Fred Perry, that got him to that summit.

In chasing that moment, Murray, in the face of longstanding criticism over his "passive" playing style, stuck with his methodical, long-term plan for improvement. As he said after this match, he took his share of tough losses, but he remained committed to getting better bit by bit, year by year, and trusting that at some point it would be enough. Murray walked his own road to win Wimbledon, and it was fitting that he celebrated it in his own way.

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