There is an episode of Doctor Who, the British sci-fi show, in which the doctor is trapped in a castle and is chased by a demon. He soon realises there is no escape unless he makes a confession. But he isn’t in the mood to confess. Instead, he finds a room with a wall made of Azbantium, a mineral 400 times harder than diamond, and beings to punch it with his fist. The demon catches up with him and inflicts a deadly wound, but the doctor manages to teleport his past self back to the castle before he dies. This sequence is repeated again and again for four billion years before the doctor smashes through the wall and earns his freedom.
While not quite lasting four billion years, Andy Murray’s career as a professional tennis player has sometimes felt like he is trapped in a similar cycle as the doctor, except in this story, the wall is made up of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Since Federer won his first Wimbledon in 2003, these three have won 43 of the last 53 Grand Slams. The rest of the world’s male tennis players have had to be content with splitting the other 10. Murray has three of those 10, following his 6-4, 7-6, 7-6 win over Milos Raonic in the 2016 Wimbledon final on Sunday.
It is to Murray’s credit that he has never stopped throwing punches at that metaphorical wall. He could have accepted that he would be the fourth best player in the world. He could have gone about building himself a “nice” tennis career and making a “nice” living. But he chose the road less taken. He pushed himself harder and harder; he forced himself to remake body and mind, to drain every last drop of his talent just to dent that wall.
He lost his first four Grand Slam finals to Federer and Djokovic, including his maiden Wimbledon final in 2012. Then came Ivan Lendl, an Olympic gold, the US Open and finally the Championship trophy in 2013, the one he had been dreaming of since he was a teenager. It seemed like Murray’s star was finally rising but then Lendl left. Murray had back surgery and Novak Djokovic transformed himself into a tennis cyborg from the future, swallowing up titles and history seemingly at will.
Murray persevered. He is not the most attractive player to watch. As I’ve written before, of all the top players, he makes tennis look the most difficult. He also never appears like he is enjoying himself on the court. He scowls, he gestures, he yells, seemingly at everyone and everything, including himself. Tennis seems like hard work when you are Andy Murray but it is extremely hard work trying to keep up with Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. In that order, they stand No 1, No 2 and No 3 in career Grand Slams won. In Murray’s case, he has lost four finals, one each at all four Grand Slams, to either Federer or Djokovic.
Since winning Wimbledon in 2013, he has lost three finals to Djokovic, including twice this year at the Australian Open and French Open. Yet Murray has kept throwing punches and more importantly kept believing that his time would come again.
In hindsight, Lendl’s return just before Wimbledon was the catalyst for the wheel to start turning again. Murray was brilliant throughout the two weeks at SW 19, losing just two sets over the course of the tournament and those came in the same match against Jo-Wilfred Tsonga. In his other six matches, Murray was relentless and efficient, running down ball after ball and always forcing his opponent to come up with one more shot. Most of them failed.
It was the same story against Raonic, the giant Canadian with the torpedo serve playing his first Wimbledon final. Murray broke Raonic just once all match but that was enough to win the first set. In the subsequent two tie-breaks, he blew Raonic off the court like a tornado ploughing through a haystack. Raonic, whose win-loss record in tie-breaks this year was 20-6 coming into the final, won just five points combined. Murray was seemingly everywhere at once and Raonic couldn’t find a way past, through or around him. Such was Murray’s dominance that he wasn’t broken even once in the match and faced just two break points across three sets while making just 12 unforced errors.
Djokovic’s early loss had made Murray the favourite to win for the first time in his career and though he said later he was as nervous as he was in his earlier finals, he certainly didn’t show it. “It was truly a spectacular performance by Andy Murray,” Vijay Amritraj said on commentary.
After the championship point was earned and won, Murray punched the air and then broke down. He sat in his chair and sobbed into his towel. “These wins feel extra special because of the tough losses,” he said while hugging the trophy.
In his fierce desire to compete, Murray has made sure nobody will outwork him on court. He has become the patron saint of lost points, running down balls others wouldn’t even bother chasing. If he is going to lose, it was not going to be because of lack of effort but because his opponent was better.
He may be the fourth best player of his generation but that is ultimately not what will define Murray. It is his willingness to keep on fighting, to keep believing, to keep pushing even when the odds have seemed insurmountable that is his legacy.
He has now won three Grand Slams with Lendl as his coach plus an Olympic Gold in 2012. If Lendl sticks around, who knows how many more the Scot could win. This win could turn out to be the harbinger of Murray’s rise to the top of men’s tennis. He’s certainly worked hard enough to earn it.