When John Isner’s backhand volley hit the tape and fell back on match point, Andy Murray turned toward his player box, hopped in the air and ... smiled. It was a wider smile than we’re used to seeing from the saturnine Scot, and it lasted a little longer.
Why wouldn’t he savor this moment? With his win over Isner in the BNP Paribas Masters final, Murray, at age 29 and after more than a decade on tour, found himself at a new career summit. The previous day, he had become the No. 1 player in the world for the first time, and for the last two hours and 18 minutes he had demonstrated to a packed house in Paris exactly why he belonged there.
Murray’s 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-4 win over the American ace machine was his 20th straight, dating back to the U.S Open nearly two months ago. It left him with a tour-high 73 wins (against nine losses) and eight titles in 2016. It was his third championship at a Masters event this season, and his first in 10 tries in Paris.
Most impressive of all, it left Murray 60-5 since April, a run of excellence that began with his second win over Novak Djokovic in 14 tries, in Rome; took him to his first French Open final; earned him a second Wimbledon title and second Olympic singles gold medal; and left him in a place that many never believed he could go: the top of the men’s tennis heap. Since 2004, only three players—Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic—have occupied that spot. Now Murray has cemented his place in the Big Four forever.
Murray’s win over Isner on Sunday served as a microcosm of his winning streak, and his 2016 season. Through the week, the 6’10” Isner had used the quick court and controlled conditions to play his most imposing tennis of the year, and against Murray he hit 18 aces and 52 winners. But Murray won because he always had the extra shot, and exactly the right shot, when he needed it. He won by out-rallying Isner, by dipping passing shots at his feet, by moving him off the baseline with smart, safe, short backhands and—miracle of tennis miracles—by getting a lob over the big man’s head.
Murray also won because he didn’t panic. He saved all six break points that he faced and came back from 0-40 down in one of his service games. Like any opponent of Isner, Murray had to play his service games knowing that with one false move, the set could be over. To that end, Murray played with a careful, almost painstaking blend of steadiness and variation.
But this was nothing new for Murray. More than the other members of the Big Four, this is the methodical game he has needed to play to become No. 1. While Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have different styles, they all have one major strength in common: a point-ending forehand. Murray, with his slightly conservative grip and late swing, has never been able to rely on his own forehand in the same way.
Instead, Murray has had to find other, more complicated—more painstaking—ways to build rallies, and to finish them. For years he was told that he needed to attack more, to throw his congenital caution to the wind. But Murray knew that it wasn’t that simple; he knew he had to find a method that accentuated his own strengths, patience and variation.
First, with Ivan Lendl, Murray learned to use his forehand more effectively; that helped bring him his first two major titles, and Olympic gold. Then, with Amelie Mauresmo, he learned to play with the all-court grit and polish needed for clay; that helped him turn in his most consistent season, in 2015, which wound up with him leading Great Britain to its first Davis Cup title since 1936.
At the time, I wondered if that long-awaited triumph might have the same effect on Murray that it once had on Djokovic. After taking Serbia to its first Davis Cup in 2010, Djokovic won his first 43 matches of 2011 and became No. 1 for the first time. The transformation wasn’t nearly as immediate for Murray. He began 2016 by losing to Djokovic in the Australian Open final, losing early in Indian Wells and Miami, and splitting with Mauresmo.
Was Murray destined to be a lifetime No. 2? He had first reached that spot in 2009, and had yet to get past it. Billie Jean King once described British athletes as inveterate “r/u’s”—runners-up. Brits were most comfortable, she believed, coming in second. Was Murray, despite all of his successes, going to help prove BJK’s point?
Murray dates his latest evolution, from second fiddle to top dog, to an obscure source: a three-set win over Benoit Paire in the third round in Monte Carlo in April. And it’s true; since then he has been a different player. The Scot has reached 11 finals in 12 events and won eight of them.
I first noticed a change the following month, at the French Open. In the first round, Murray found himself behind two sets to love to the ultimate wily veteran, Radek Stepanek. Nothing was working for Murray, and when he fell behind early in the third, he shot his player box a forlorn stare. He didn’t scream with rage; this time he really looked like he was about to give up. Except that he didn’t. He came back to beat Stepanek 7-5 in the fifth, and the rest has been history. It’s that final layer of grit, that ability to find his way through virtually any opponent, no matter how well he was or wasn’t playing, that has defined Murray’s year for me, and which was the final ingredient that took him from No. 2 to No. 1.
One of the pleasures of being a tennis fan in this era has been watching Andy Murray grow up as player and person. Over the last 10 years, he has gone from a wild-haired rebel to a politically conscious family man. He has matured while remaining true to himself, and showed younger tennis players that a progressive—even feminist—male athlete can be a successful male athlete. As Jo-Wilfried Tsonga said last week, the rest of the players see Murray as a role model because, “We all know how hard he works.” They know Murray’s journey to No. 1 has been the longest of any man’s, and that it has come during the toughest era of all.
The Scot, so sober and severe for so long, has earned that smile.