Entering 2012, the book on Andy Murray was as follows: good enough to reach the final weekend of Grand Slams, but unable to take the next step and knock off one of the big three of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal.
Murray had always been more comfortable as a counterpuncher, preferring to let the opponent dictate the action, defend at an elite level and then hope for an error. Against most of the field, that worked. But against the triumvirate of Federer, Djokovic or Nadal? Not so much.
With former Czech great Ivan Lendl at the helm as Murray's new coach, Andy breezed into the Australian Open semifinals, where he met the defending champion, Djokovic. The year before, Novak had defeated him easily for the title, but this time around, Murray, using a more aggressive style instilled in him by Lendl, took a two-sets-to-one lead before Djokovic forced a fifth and final set.
Murray would fall behind 5-2 but fought back, breaking Djokovic at love when he was serving for the match and holding a break point at 5-5 which would have enabled him to serve for the match. But Djokovic saved the break point to hold, and then broke Murray to win the match. Djokovic would go on to defeat Rafael Nadal in a five-set thriller to repeat as the champion in Melbourne.
Despite once again falling short, the sentiment was that the newly aggressive Murray was starting to build the game needed to challenge the top three. Murray's newfound confidence only grew when he advanced to his first Wimbledon final, where he faced the six-time champion Federer.
Murray came roaring out of the gate, taking the first set before Federer turned back the clock with the same superb shotmaking that had netted him six previous Wimbledon titles. Murray would lose, 6-4 5-7 3-6 4-6, and nearly broke down on the court afterwards. But the message to be taken out of his on-court interview was, "I'm getting closer."
Just four weeks later, on the first Sunday of August, Murray and Federer were once again set to contest a best-of-five match on the grass courts at Wimbledon. The stakes this time? An Olympic gold medal. Murray had said he was getting closer to a breakthrough, and on this day, he proved it, thrashing Federer 6-2 6-1 6-4 to capture the gold. Many people saw this as a breakthrough for Murray, although he had still yet to prove himself over the course of a two-week major.
Well, let's just say that Murray has officially broken through. Despite some uneven play through the course of his run in Flushing Meadows, Andy advanced to the final, where he met the defending champion, Djokovic. In a tense, electric match, Murray emerged victorious, 7-6 (10) 7-5 2-6 3-6 6-2, outlasting the indefatigable Djokovic with a runaway fifth set.
What are some of the biggest takeaways from Murray's win? Well, for the first time since 2003, four different men won the four majors. That year, Andre Agassi (Australian Open), Juan Carlos Ferrero (French Open), Federer (Wimbledon) and the recently retired Andy Roddick (U.S. Open) took home the majors. This year—in a neat bit of symmetry—world No. 1 Djokovic repeated in Australia, world No. 2 Nadal won his seventh French Open, world No. 3 Federer won his seventh Wimbledon and world No. 4 Murray won his maiden Slam in Flushing Meadows.
Murray's win also raises an interesting debate: Who is the ATP Player of the Year? Had Djokovic won, it would have been impossible to pick against him, as he would have won two majors. The same could have been said about Federer, whose impressive late-career surge was temporarily halted by Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals.
But we can agree on one thing: Murray is the player of the summer, having won the Olympics and now the U.S. Open. It's quite possible that we won't know who the Player of the Year is until the fall season wraps up, with the ATP World Tour Finals scheduled for early November.
We can also agree on this fact: Even though he doesn't yet have the resume of Federer, Djokovic or Nadal, there is no longer a zero next to Andy Murray's ledger at Grand Slam events. He's been a very consistent player for quite some time, and now, Murray has cracked the elite.
Big Three? Not anymore. Big Four.