N.B I write this as a tennis fan who has followed Murray closely since Queens’ 2005 and watched just about every Grand Slam match that he has ever played; but more importantly as a sports fan, whose greatest pleasure would be to see Andy Murray finally win a Grand Slam.
Yesterday’s episode of Andy Murray-induced depression was caused by an utterly heartbreaking defeat from an initially winning position, and then having squandered that, titanically fighting back to the brink of victory only to let it slip away again. The only consolation was that defeat came at the hands of the superhuman Novak Djokovic. A man with such an awesome self-belief and assured swagger that you just know he’ll win those crucial ‘big points’.
The heartbreak came in two stages: firstly, having to leave my viewing position to go to work at 5-6 in the 5th set (at five six in the fifth; AT FIVE FLIPPING SIX IN THE FIFTH!!!) despite having taken a half day from said work to watch the match. Attritional 40 shot rallies and Djokovic’s incessant ball-bouncing cruelly making a mockery of my carefully scheduled time management. The feeling of betrayal and guilt was overwhelming as I switched the TV off just as Andy most needed the support.
Secondly, the phonecall three minutes later: “What’s happening Mum?!” “It’s 15-40, match point, Murray serves it…oh…uh-oh…oh…ohhhhh…oh, Djokovic has got it.”
Such a sinking feeling. The agony of defeat. Dejection; depression; and utter despair. Goodness only knows how Murray must have felt then, after throwing his very, very best stuff again and again and again for almost five hours and coming up agonisingly, yet decisively, short.
‘Agonisingly, yet decisively, short.’ That sums up the most simple beauty of tennis – the better player on the day always wins. There are hard luck stories (Exhibit A: Wimbledon 2001 – Ivanisevic def. Henman 7-5 6-7 0-6 7-6 6-3); but no-one ever lost a game of tennis undeservedly. There are moments of fortune during matches; but no-one ever lost a match due to bad luck. You must scrap, claw, struggle and fight with all your soul for every point and those who can still raise their game when the inferno of emotion is at its fiercest are the true greats. Murray was phenomenal yesterday; Djokovic was just better.
Still, using that most hideous and inappropriate of sporting clichés, there were numerous positives for Murray to take from defeat yesterday. His forehand was more consistent than ever before, the backhand continually damaged Djokovic, and his fitness seems to have improved even further. More importantly, from the crucial psychological perspective, this was the closest he had been to one of the big 3 at a Grand Slam since defeating Nadal at the US Open in 2008 (ignoring his injury aided victory over Nadal at Melbourne in 2010). It was also the best he had played against one of the big 3 at a Grand Slam, probably ever.
In fact, losing in a semi-final in this manner was probably more advantageous for Murray’s psyche than defeating a lesser player and actually reaching the final (Marin Cilic and David Ferrer were the vanquished opponents when Murray reached his 2 finals in Melbourne). He finally proved to himself – and to us, though that hardly matters – that he could slug it out with the top men under the most asphyxiating pressure.
This wasn’t a timid loss (Federer US Open 2008 & Australian Open 2010); this wasn’t a listless capitulation (Nadal Wimbledon 2010 & US Open 2011; also Djokovic Australian Open 2011); it wasn’t a solid yet ultimately erratic performance (Nadal French Open 2011 & Wimbledon 2011) and it certainly wasn’t snatching defeat from the jaws of certain victory (Roddick Wimbledon 2009). This was a truly valiant effort only conquered by a tennis-playing colossus currently striding the earth with an iron will, nerves of pure ice and a monster forehand.
Andy Murray’s misfortune lies in sharing an era with three of the greatest to ever play the game – even though an immense competitor and true sportsman like Murray probably views it as a privilege rather than inherent bad luck. On today’s evidence, and in large part due to the help of Ivan Lendl, Murray has begun to seriously close the gap – a bridging that will be complete when Murray lifts the Wimbledon Men’s Singles Trophy on Sunday 8th July 2012. Definitely. Maybe.