Andy Murray's 2016 Wimbledon title represents another special link in his Hall of Fame career. The Scot never let up in squeezing big-serving Milos Raonic 6-4, 7-6(3), 7-6(2) on Sunday. It was the kind of dominance that flexed his mental toughness and completed his quest to be one of the most resilient champions of all time.
When Murray won his first major at the 2012 U.S. Open, he released the anguish and doubts of trying to be a major champion in the era of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic—the three contemporaries who have loomed over him with endless collections of major trophies.
When he conquered Wimbledon 2013, it was a triumph for his nation. It ranked as the most special fulfillment of his career, and it was shared as a global achievement.
But ending a three-year drought of major titles was more personal validation for Murray. It's been a long and often painful road back to glory, and he stands taller as one of the superstars in a golden era of legendary champions.
Murray's Unique Resilience
Murray has never been as dominant as his trio of great rivals, and he's suffered more disappointment in major finals. His third major win eases some of the pain of losing eight times in a major final. He fell thrice to Federer, and he's borne the brunt of Djokovic's dominance five times.
He's had to repeatedly brush away failures, stoke the flames of his belief, work harder and put himself back in position to win...or fail again. It's a mental toll few other stars would be willing to endure. Tennis writer Ben Rothenberg tweeted this sentiment:
By contrast, the great Andre Agassi, at the absolute physical peak of his career, buckled under less adversity. By 1995, Agassi had won three majors, held the No. 1 ranking and defeated rival Pete Sampras in the Australian Open final. But he lost the U.S. Open final, and from there, his career nosedived for three years. Losing that match to Sampras was too much. Agassi later acknowledged in his autobiography, Open, that he told trainer Gil Reyes in April 1996, "Since losing to Pete at the U.S. Open, I've lost the will."
Murray has shown greater resilience after taking big-match beatings than the more offensively gifted Agassi, who receded, playing well below his abilities and best efforts. (It should also be noted that Agassi matured thanks to his own kind of resilience and certified his legendary career with five more majors after age 29.)
Murray faced adversity for the past three years with back surgery, slow progress, coaching changes and the reign of Djokovic. But he's steered himself to open seas. This time around, fortune dealt him a nice hand, removing all three of his storied rivals as if to show the tennis world what it might be like if Murray were the No. 1 man. Christopher Clarey of the New York Times highlighted this on Twitter:
ESPN.com's Peter Bodo wrote about the pressure Murray faced as the prohibitive favorite for the first time, and Murray tucked away the doubts and hammered his way to beautiful dominance.
He broke Raonic in the 25th minute for the only break of the day, leading Centre Court's raucous cheering as if it were a Led Zeppelin concert. Out in front, he was not going to give his opponent any kind of open window, leaving Raonic with two famished looks at break points that were snatched away like delicious strawberries.
After the match, Murray downplayed questions about his role as the favorite, according to ESPN.com's Greg Garber: "No different from the other Slams, really. Just a different opponent on the other side, with different challenges, just like Roger and Novak."
For anyone who doubted Murray's stock as a great champion, he showed he could hold the leading man's scepter and is even greater than the three majors he now holds.
Historical Acclaim Shining Brighter
Many tennis observers might view Murray as unlucky that his major trophies are fewer because of the Big Three. Could he have appeared in 14 to 16 major finals in another era? Would he own seven or eight titles if Federer, Nadal and Djokovic had not established their empires?
Perhaps Murray could be discussed in the group of legends such as Sampras, Agassi, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.
Instead, Murray has had a difficult path to claim major titles, and he's never held the No. 1 ranking. Yet, there's no question he's had a greater career than Lleyton Hewitt, who held No. 1 for 80 weeks, Andy Roddick, who got it for 13 weeks, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Marat Safin, Patrick Rafter and others.
There's another view of Murray the champion. His willingness to battle the Big Three has made him greater. He is a better player because he's played in the past decade of dominance. Give him the wheel, and he can navigate the ship through turbulent waters, find the opening and pass through like he's dealing with a Raonic serve.
Through all the challenges, Murray has never relented. It's like the way he bounds after an opponent's best shot, scraping back to win the point. He urges himself on, screaming and stalking the baseline like a wounded wildcat, filled with the emotional hunger to win.
Murray does not have Federer's forehand, Nadal's bludgeoning attack or Djokovic's array of creative pressure, but he's a special champion in his own right, competing and contributing to the strength of their collective golden era.
His three major titles add shine to his glut of second-place finishes, including in last month's French Open. There will be opportunities to claim major titles in Melbourne, Australia, and Paris, which would put him squarely inside the top 10 superstars of the Open era.
If Murray keeps winning, his legend will expand. Chalk it up to his trademark resilience—the defining feature of his career.