Andy Murray: Does His 2012 US Open Breakthrough Really Count?
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Move over, Fred Perry, you've got company!
By now you've heard that Andy Murray finally fulfilled his Grand Slam prophecy by defeating Novak Djokovic over five mind-numbing sets (7-6 (10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2) to snag the 2012 U.S. Open Championship. Not only did Murray get rid of the proverbial "monkey" off his back, but he ended the all-too-often-mentioned 76-year drought for British men at majors.
With each of the "Big Four" having snagged a major this season, the course of professional tennis is shaping up to be a very historic and entertaining ride. Although it is fun to predict the future and argue until we're blue in the face, there's really no telling what will happen to the careers of both men after the grueling match, and anyone who attempts to foretell a conjecture will be giving a guess that is as good as the next guy's.
Yet what we can do is analyze this particular tournament and take a look at the road Andy Murray took as he etched his name alongside luminaries such as his coach, Ivan Lendl, to see if this tournament was indeed his from the start.
Nearly every tournament—big or small—has its naysayers and detractors (blue clay in Madrid, anyone?) that will make it their mission to complain about a barrage of issues.
I'm not one to willingly take anything away from the great feat he accomplished, but before many start anointing (already happening at an alarming rate) the Scot as the next logical successor because he outlasted the "Djoker," let us check if this tournament was really his coming-out party instead of a ripple in time when the planets aligned and smiled at the "Curious Case of Andy Murray."
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Rafael Nadal's Withdrawal
True, injuries are a part of all sports, and one could easily pose the question of whether or not Roger Federer would have won several of his Grand Slams had a healthy Rafael Nadal been in the field.
However, in a case such as Murray's, where the athlete in question has repeatedly tried to defiantly prove he has gotten over the hump, history may rate it passively since one of his main rivals did not participate. If Andy Murray is to never again hoist another major trophy, fans could say he "never won a real one."
Nadal is a lifetime 13-5 against Murray with a record of 6-2 in Grand Slams, with three wins last year, including one at the U.S. Open. Yes, things can easily change over the course of an entire season and hiring a new coach such as Lendl will undoubtedly benefit a player like Murray, but until he can show the world that he can consistently defeat Nadal at a tournament when it matters, there is no reason to think otherwise.
The Brit's only two wins were due to a withdrawal on Nadal's part in 2010 at the Australian Open and a match where the Spaniard had pulled his stomach muscles after an exhausting summer (when he became the first man to win the French Open, Wimbledon and Olympic Gold) at the 2008 U.S. Open.
Moreover, while Andy Murray showed us this summer that he can hang with Federer, unlike Djokovic, he has never downed both Nadal and Federer in the same Grand Slam. With Federer falling to Berdych in the quarterfinals and Nadal nursing his eternally sore knees, he realized that this was his best chance to bag the big one and join the elite club.
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Stumbles in the Early Rounds
Great champions always find a way to win, even when they don't have their best. In the quarterfinals against Marin Cilic, Andy Murray was almost dispatched after finding himself down 6-3, 5-1. Cilic, a very young and talented Croatian once ranked inside the top 10, seemed to feel the nerves and quickly got broken.
Then again, after blowing a 4-2 lead in the tiebreak, Cilic never regained his composure and quickly lost 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-0. Had Cilic converted his lone set point in the second set at 5-2, we might be reading a different story here. Cilic, who had beaten Murray in their last meeting at the U.S. Open in straight sets, was clearly laboring toward the end of the match, having played two five-set matches in the days shortly before.
Just getting to the Cilic match proved to be a hassle, as Murray ran into his mother's heartthrob in the third round—Feliciano Lopez (who is affectionately referred to as "Deliciano" in almost Bieber-like craze by her). Murray narrowly avoided doom as he got broken three times and escaped by the skin of his teeth, winning three tiebreakers 7-6 (5), 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (4).
The Favorable Winds
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Tennis, more than any other sport, can be dictated by the weather patterns. The balls, court and players can be adversely affected by the heat, humidity, etc. Granted, both players have to deal with the same circumstances, but one player's games could be better equipped to deal with a certain type of weather crisis over another.
That is exactly what happened in the semifinal match between Murray and Tomas Berdych.
Berdych, having come off a huge win against Federer, was on a roll. Yet, on a day in which it was questionable at best to even have the gates opened, the two were forced to play a match that seemed too predicated on how hard the wind wanted to gust during the rally. Several times play was stopped, players' chairs flew out onto the court and garbage swirled around.
For a player like Berdych who employs a high ball toss to hit his major weapon—the serve—the wind zapped him of his go-to move. Piling on more unforced errors and double faults than one would care to count, the match eventually went to Murray, who, having grown up in the windy country of Scotland, had developed the variety in his game to combat such a situation.
Even though Berdych valiantly fought back, registering a pseudo serve and volley tactic, it was an academic 5-7, 6-2, 6-1, 7-6 (7).
Considering both were tied at three wins apiece and Berdych had the lead in Grand Slams, who's to say the Czech would not have won on a day with milder conditions?
To give one an idea of how much wind can affect a player, David Ferrer and Novak Djokovic took the court soon after Berdych lost. The wind assisted Ferrer to a 5-2 lead and a double break before play was suspended for the night. The next day, with the sun shining bright and the wind halted to a normal autumn breeze, Djokovic came out firing and won 2-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-2.
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Let me preface this by saying Andy Murray beat Novak Djokovic fair and square. There were no antsy moments of intimidating linesmen at critical junctures or ill-timed distractions to be mistaken for gamesmanship. Murray showed more heart, desire and perhaps luck in the first-set tiebreak that stretched for almost a half-hour.
After a wind-blown first two sets that saw Djokovic looking down the barrel of a gun needing three straight sets to pull the championship out, many thought the match was all but over. Maybe it's because the wind died down, maybe it's because Djokovic has been there before, maybe it's because Murray got tight, but a couple of hours later we were dead even at two sets all.
It was then, after all the mental and physical energy had been expended to claw his way back, that Djokovic faltered for good. After over five hours of tennis, he was spent and his body failed him while Murray closed out the formalities in a lackluster final set. A large part of the anti-climactic nature of the final act was due to Murray having a full extra day of rest, which gave him the final boost needed to cross the finish line.
Had Djokovic won the first set in the legendary tiebreak, would he have defeated Murray in four sets? Playing the "what if" game is a no-win situation, but one could make the argument that the extra time to kick back and relax in addition to playing in the windy first two sets helped Murray topple Djokovic.
In a match with 17 breaks of serve and 121 unforced errors, undoubtedly caused by the gusts, one can only wonder if the result would've been the same had Ashe Stadium been built with a roof.
Andy Murray, Grand Slam Champion and Member of the Big 4
At the end of the day, regardless of what anyone says about if it "counts" or not, Andy Murray has broken through to the other side of the table reserved for Grand Slam champions only.
Murray, having beaten Djokovic at the Olympics, played each rally with greater desire and effectively used his variety of shots to make sure that he was not denied entry a fifth time.
This year, we finally saw what we had been hoping for: a year where each of the Big Four won a big one. An interesting thing to think about is a new potential rivalry between the Serb and Scot, especially if the other two can't compete at the highest level anymore.
However, let's not worry too much about the future. Let's live in the moment and celebrate Murray's boyhood dream. Let us admire the dedication and persistence of the human psyche.
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