Who is the greatest returner of the modern era? And by modern era I’m referring to 1991 onwards; not necessarily the year when the age-old wooden racket was consigned to countryside antique shops but when comprehensive statistics were introduced into the game. So, statistically, who is the greatest returner? Surely the great Andre Agassi? Nope. Well, if not him, then what about the other greats from the last twenty years: Becker, Sampras, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic? Again, no. According to the ATP, the greatest returner of the yellow fluffy ball since the stats began is Andy Murray of Dunblane. This surely highlights how much we are in a golden era of tennis. How could the greatest returner of the modern era never have won a Grand Slam. Murray had been in five Slam finals without success, no one had ever been in six without a win.
Now, I’ve sat through every one of Murray’s Major oversees finals, either getting up early on a Sunday morning or going to bed later than I’d care to, wishing I’d spent that time under the duvet. But this time, Murray had been in the form of his life, getting revenge on Federer with the Olympic gold medal and seeing off Djokovic along the way. There has been a new belief in Murray since his on-court breakdown at Wimbledon, where, as someone cheesily put it, he lost the match but won the hearts of the nation. Surely this time it would be different.
The first set laid down the marker. One 54 shot rally showed that neither player knew when they were beaten, Murray refreshingly the more aggressive of the two. But for all Murray’s might, Djokovic replied successfully to almost everything. As they traded stroke for stroke, breaks gained broken back with alarming speed, the game looked to emulate some of the classic Grand Slam finals of the past. After nearly an hour and a half Murray came through 11-9 in the tie-break, with most British finger nails significantly depleted and the work-conscious mathematically working out their bedtimes if it went to five sets.
When it looked as if the Scot had the second set wrapped up at 5-1, back came Djokovic to 5-5. Surely Murray had bottled it as only a Brit could do. But, not a bit of it, he won the next two games, taking a two set lead in a Major final for the first time in his career.
Then the Serbian got hot. Murray threw everything at him, only to find the ball landing deep on his side every time. The unforced errors crept upwards and the tournament holder found his way back in the match at 2-1.
The fourth began disastrously for a seemingly exhausted Murray. His serve went slow and loopy and his backhand slice landed unambitiously short. Djokovic capitalised to take the early break. “Jelly!” screamed the Scot, presumably at his legs. But, whatever the reason for this unusual outburst it inspired a second wind, which saw him outplay the world number two for the best part of six games, even knocking him to the floor at one point, but such is the Serbian’s disposition that he couldn’t find a way break back, and of course it was Djokovic who broke again at 5-3, roaring to crowd as he leveled the match.
On with the kettle.
Into the fifth. With the momentum very much with Djokovic, did anyone really believe Murray could go on and win? The Scot is well known for his sulks and grumps, and he was doing plenty of them in the first four sets. But something within the Scot changed. All that was visible in his face as he clenched his teeth was belief and determination.
The rallies went on and on, the twentieth rally to go over twenty strokes passed by and Murray found a way to break. He held serve and went up a second break. Dreamland. Dreamland short-lived as Djokovic broke straight back. Still the lengthy rallies continued, the Serb finally started to show vague signs of fatigue but barely. Murray sensed weakness though, and found his third wind. Now, like a wild beast he was going for the jugular. This time Djokovic had nothing – completely burnt out. As Murray broke emphatically to serve for history at 5-2, Djokovic called on the physio. It was as good as over. Murray went to 40-0 courtesy of two correct challenges. Djokovic had time for one last smash, as he tried to limit the strokeplay. But at the second time of asking the tournament holder fired long and it was all over. Britain had its first Grand Slam champion in 76 years.
At nearly five hours, this was a classic, not just for British significance. Every rally seemed to last forever; so much staked on every point. Murray’s blistering start, pegged back by dogged Djokovic. Aside from the breath-taking returning Murray won this by wearing down his opponent – battering him into ultimate submission and in doing so leaving next to nothing in his own tank. He could barely walk to collect the trophy and lost two toenails in the last set. Who would have thought he could respond like this after the Wimbledon defeat? Who would have thought he would ever be put in the same league as the guys above him in the rankings? Above him for not much longer.
What has happened to British sport? We used to pride ourselves on being plucky losers from the schools of Henman, Montgomerie and Devon Loch. In the old days Wiggins would have crashed into a burger van on the Champs Elysees, Ennis would have tripped over the ninth hurdle, ruining her pretty visage and all sponsorship, Farah would have slipped on a bar of soap on the last lap of the 10,000 meters. Murray was meant to lose that last set 17-15 and be remembered as the greatest returner of all time, who never won a Major.
Luckily someone had burned all copies of the ‘Guide to Being a British Sportsman’. This summer has seen us eclipse all expectation of what was possible from British sports men and women.
Well done, Andy Murray. We salute you.
By Edward Lines