Some points are bigger than others. Some points are longer than others. And some are both.
The rally that Andy Murray and David Goffin played at 2-2 in the first set of their quarterfinal in Shanghai on Friday was long, entertaining and, it would turn out, crucial to the result.
The Brit and the Belgian moved each other from side to side like video-game avatars. Goffin, a master of changing direction with the ball, seemed to have the advantage. He sent a running forehand into one corner, and then an even better running backhand into the other corner. The Belgian shot-maker, who is trying to reach his first year-end championship, had been on a roll the last two weeks, and he looked more than ready to continue it.
But this was where Goffin’s roll would end. He may have thought, as he threaded that down-the-line backhand into the corner, that he had won the point. And against most other opponents, he would have. But Murray stormed across the court in time to return the ball, and then hit a strong forehand crosscourt that turned the point in his favor. From there, Murray grabbed control of the rally and finished it with an inside-out forehand winner. He kept the upper hand the rest of the way in a surprisingly one-sided 6-2, 6-2 win.
That point—and the speed, power, accuracy and stamina required to win it—could be seen as the product of a decade’s worth of work by Murray. When he arrived on tour as a teenager, he was skinny and struggled with his fitness. It seemed to some of us then that he might become a player like Goffin; a brilliantly creative ball-striker who would eventually be worn down by stronger opponents.
Instead, Murray turned himself into one of those stronger opponents; the tortured artist became a complete player, and the perennial runner-up became a Grand Slam champion and gold medalist. The difference could be seen clearly when Murray faced Goffin, who is a consummate shot-maker. Murray matched the Belgian’s ball striking, while hitting serves with more pace and ground strokes with more weight and consistency. Murray absorbed everything Goffin threw at him, and threw it back with interest.
That’s what we’ve come to expect from Murray. At 29, he has reached a new career summit. The win over Goffin left him 63-9 on the year, and he has now won 16 straight sets going back to his title run in Beijing last week. This has been a season of solidification for Murray, who won his second Wimbledon and his second Olympic gold medal this summer. But it has also been a season of improvement. Fifteen years after moving to Spain and training on red clay there, he has finally mastered the surface. This year Murray won his first title in Rome and reached his first French Open final. As he enters his 30s, he’s still in the process of fulfilling his potential.
And that’s also what we’ve come to expect from Murray.
“I think I persevered,” Murray said in 2013 when he won his first Wimbledon after nine tries. “That’s really been it, the story of my career, probably. I had, yeah, a lot of tough losses, but the one thing I would say is I think every year I always improved a little bit … Every year my ranking was going in the [right] direction.”
As the 2016 season winds to its close, Murray is trying to take another, very big step. Rankings-wise, it’s the last and the toughest of all: to become No. 1 for the first time. Over the last 13 years, only three players have held that spot: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Can Murray become the fourth of the Big Four to get there? He’s within striking distance, roughly 1,500 points behind Djokovic. With only a month to go, he probably won’t get there this season, but it’s possible in 2017; Djokovic will have a lot of points to defend over the first half of the year.
On Friday, while Murray rolled over Goffin, Djokovic struggled mightily to get past Mischa Zverev in three sets. But this is the way it often is with Djokovic; he can look frazzled against a lower-ranked player, and then come out firing with precision against a better opponent. If Djokovic meets Murray in the Shanghai final, which looks likely, you can probably forget all about his form from the rest of the week.
For Murray, a match against Djokovic would represent his next career challenge. His recent surge has been, in part, a reaction to losing to the Serb 12 of 13 times from 2014 to the spring of 2016. During that time, Djokovic became the next impossible hill for Murray to climb. He was ready when Djokovic slipped at Wimbledon and in Rio this summer. But to become No. 1, Murray will need to find a way to beat Djokovic one-on-one, in important events.
This weekend, Murray may get a chance in Shanghai. He’s come a long way in the last 10 years, and made himself into a complete player. Is the best—and being the best—still to come?