Andy Murray stood at the center of the baseline and watched a ground stroke from Novak Djokovic float toward him. On most occasions, faced with a ball like this, Murray would be happy to send the ball back safely into his opponent’s court and wait for a better opportunity to come along.
But this wasn’t most occasions. In fact, it was unlike any other occasion in Murray’s 12-year career. This was the first time he had reached the title match at the ATP World Tour Finals in London, his adopted hometown. More important, it was Murray’s first opportunity, at the ripe old tennis age of 29, to finish a season ranked No. 1. To get to this precipice, he had won his last 23 ATP matches; all he needed was one more. Fittingly—and unfortunately—it would have to come against his biggest nemesis, and the man who had won this event the last four years.
Through the first half-hour of play, Murray had twice reached break point, but both times he had tightened up and put a ball into the net. Now, with Djokovic serving at 3-4 in the first set, Murray reached break point again. This time, instead of biding his time with a safe backhand, Murray backpedaled around the ball and took it on his forehand side. This time, instead of rallying with caution, he let loose with a shot that normally isn’t his specialty, an inside-out forehand. Now it was Djokovic who had to play defense, and who put the ball in the net.
Murray had his break. From there he raced to a 6-3, 4-1 lead, and, after a stumble or two down the homestretch, he had his No. 1-clinching win, 6-3, 6-4.
Murray’s forehand was the story of the match, which was only appropriate, because in the past it has been the shot that has held him back and let him down. Murray has always hit it a little late, with a stance that’s a little too open and a grip that’s a little too conservative, to make it into a weapon. The other three members of the Big 4, Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, have all ridden their killer forehands to No. 1, but Murray was forced to find other, subtler, more complicated ways to win.
On Sunday, though, Murray worked hard to correct those forehand flaws. He set his feet early, took a full backswing, kept his shoulder closed, and smacked the ball as if it had no business coming back. Most of the time it still did, of course; Djokovic doesn’t give up many winners, even against the game’s most fearsome sluggers. But for the first time that I can remember, it was Murray’s forehand, rather than Djokovic’s, that set the tone for the rallies and allowed him to get a leg up in them. Murray’s statistics told the story: While he made just 54 percent of his first serves, he won 84 percent of those points.
Afterward, Murray generously and accurately said that he didn’t think it had been one of Djokovic’s best days. On the one hand, this wasn’t a surprise; Djokovic hasn’t many of his best days since the French Open. On the other hand, he had blitzed Kei Nishikori in the semifinals the previous day. Even when Djokovic hasn’t finished No. 1 in recent years, he has still closed on a high note; and while Murray had passed him in the rankings, Djokovic had still won 13 of their last 15 meetings.
This time, though, the recent losses really did seem to take a toll on Djokovic’s confidence. He never looked like he believed he was going to win, and never showed much fire or frustration when he began to lose. Djokovic hit just 13 winners against 30 errors, a virtually unthinkable ratio for the game’s most famous clinician.
Djokovic’s match summation was morosely concise: “Anything I would try, I would miss,” he said. Still, while Djokovic had to settle for No. 2 on Sunday, his win at the French Open had to make this a satisfying year for him at some level. Djokovic hasn’t been the same since achieving that long-awaited goal, but I’d be surprised if we don’t see him at No. 1 again in 2017.
As for 2016, it was a tale of two (very good) seasons. Even while Djokovic was peaking in Paris, Murray was quietly gaining ground. In the spring, he played the best clay-court tennis of his career and reached his first French Open final. During the grass swing, he welcomed Ivan Lendl back into his camp and immediately won Wimbledon. The next month, Murray clawed his way to his second Olympic gold medal. And he finished the season by sprinting down the stretch, winning his last five tournaments, and ending with a 78-9 record. Just a year shy of 30, Murray is still expanding his horizons: In the past 12 months, he has played on his first Davis Cup-winning team, won his first title in Rome, his first in Beijing, his first at the Paris Masters and his first at the World Tour Finals, while also reaching his first French final.
For 10 years, Murray has been the fourth member of the Big 4, and he has spent the last seven of those years trying and failing to get from No. 2 to No. 1 in the rankings. On Sunday Murray admitted, with characteristic honesty, that taking that final step was “something I never, ever expected.”
As 2016 progressed, though, Murray started to believe. Inspired, he found ways to win matches that he didn’t appear to have any business winning—including his knock-down, drag-out, three-hour-plus victory over Milos Raonic in the semifinals on Saturday. On Sunday, Murray won in true Big-4 style, by taking the points to his opponent with a forehand that hadn’t always been there for him in the past.
This time, perhaps for the first time in a match against one of his Hall of Fame friends, Murray looked like he expected to win.