Over the next 30 days, we'll examine one of tennis' most important numbers from a variety of perspectives. First, an assessment of world No. 1 Andy Murray, who turns 30 today.
It doesn’t take much imagination to come up with some gag birthday gifts for Andy Murray, who turns 30 today. How about a nice shooting jacket and tweed plus-fours, now that he’s officially Sir Andrew Barron Murray, OBE? A year’s supply of Pup-Peroni dog treats for his two border terriers? Maybe a tanning bed?
It’s easy to think along these lines because Murray is that rarity in tennis these days, a character. What you see is what you get. He wouldn’t know hair conditioner from toothpaste, and he has the fashion sense of a skateboarder. If Charles Schulz were still alive, he might create a character modeled on Murray in his popular comic strip, Peanuts. “Andy” undoubtedly would have plodded around with a perpetual dark cloud over his head.
For much of Murray’s career, the image would not have been misleading. But it’s different now. Murray has been living in perpetual sunshine.
Presently ranked No. 1, every potential setback for Murray seems to get offset. Lose in the fourth round of the Australian Open to unheralded Mischa Zverev? Who cares? Novak Djokovic, the defending champion and only player in a position to snatch the top ranking from Murray, was already long gone. Come down with shingles after that? It’s a bummer, but Roger Federer just announced that he’s not playing on tour until the French Open, if then. Bad elbow in March? Djokovic has the same problem.
What is this, sympathy tennis-elbow syndrome?
Thirty is no longer the dreaded, magical year when reality moves in to crush all the hopes and dreams of one's youth. In tennis these days, 30 is more like a launching pad. We’ve seen it provide an unexpectedly satisfying new chapter in the lives of, among others, Roger Federer, Francesca Schiavone, Tommy Haas, Ivo Karlovic, Flavia Pennetta, Venus Williams and Serena Williams.
Murray has good reason to look forward to his next few years, especially if he has the motivation to add to his resume. But if anyone in tennis can be forgiven for having trouble with motivation, it’s Murray. It’s yet another pitfall of being the greatest British tennis player since Fred Perry. It can also be seen as a natural outcome of Murray’s history in the game.
Murray had plenty to feel glum about through the early part of his pro career. Bucking the Federer-Rafael Nadal-Djokovic tides, he played in 11 Grand Slam semifinals and four finals before finally punching through at the 2012 U.S. Open. It wasn’t for lack of effort.
John McEnroe was on the Murray bandwagon right from the start, but not without moments of doubt. Shortly after Murray reached his first major final at the 2008 U.S. Open, McEnroe told me: "I was a little worried when I looked at Andy and the fitness issues, especially in light of the level Nadal [and Murray’s other rivals] took it to. If Andy wants to get to that level he'll have to get more physical.”
Murray took those words to heart and transformed himself into one of the fittest and strongest players on tour. But another Australian Open final loss—at the time, his third—followed his breakthrough win at Flushing Meadows, and it rekindled the old message: Don’t get your hopes up too high. Murray is still British, and that means he’s destined to let you down—especially at Wimbledon.
Murray ultimately proved the cynics and Brit-bashers wrong when, later that summer, he ended Great Britain’s 77-year national nightmare by upsetting of top-seeded Djokovic. Afterward, Murray acknowledged, “My head was kind of everywhere. I mean, some of the shots Novak came up with were unbelievable. Mentally, that last game will be the toughest game I'll play in my career.”
That last sentence Murray uttered is memorable for its conviction and finality. Winning Wimbledon ensured that nothing would ever be quite the same for Murray. Nothing would ever be as daunting—or, perhaps, as satisfying. Murray might have dropped off the face of the earth at that moment, his mission accomplished. But life doesn’t work that way.
Murray soldiered on, but something seemed to be missing. He didn’t make another Grand Slam final until the Australian Open of 2015—which he lost. And he didn’t win another major until he bagged his second title at Wimbledon, just last year.
A funny thing happened at that same tournament. Djokovic’s invincible persona dramatically began to delaminate.
Having raised his game, Murray—who also reached the French Open final last year—found himself in the fall with a shot at taking over the top ranking from Djokovic. Murray had lost too many Grand Slam singles finals early in his career to build a resume to challenge those compiled by his Big Four rivals. But suddenly, with a little luck, Murray could join the elite list of 16 players who had finished the year ranked No. 1.
Murray made the most of his opportunity, mounting one of the great year-end drives in tennis history. It was one of the most improbable outcomes in recent memory, but also one the most deserved.
It was an apt reward for a diligent pro who had known more than his share of frustration. It’s an honor to be one of tennis’ Big Four, but in terms of accomplishments, Murray is clearly the junior member, just 3-8 in Grand Slam finals. On the other hand, two of those wins were at Wimbledon, and along the way Murray also led Great Britain to an improbable Davis Cup triumph. He’s a national hero, knighted by the Queen, already hailed by some as the greatest sportsman in British history, surpassing the likes of soccer icons Bobby Charlton and George Best, as well as runner Sebastian Coe.
Murray’s hair still looks like somebody set off a cherry bomb in it. He still shuffles around on the court like a septuagenarian making his way to the front door to pick up the newspaper. He still is who he is, but that storm cloud that once seemed perpetually poised above his head has dissipated.
Murray has struggled this year, still trying to recoup the energy he spent in those crazy final months of 2016. It’s a difficult task, because he’s perfectionist. If you asked him what he most wants for his birthday, he’d probably ask for a kind French Open draw.
But Murray has already gotten the best present of all in the continued struggles of Djokovic, although he’s running out of time to make the most of it.
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