Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Andy Murray banishes 76 years of hurt with US Open triumph

In the end, after 76 years of increasingly desperate hope, despairing hope that had begun to border on the hysterical, only the most hardy few of Brits were still watching, praying, keeping up with the sport in New York as the clock passed 2am GMT and the 2012 US Open final threatened to roll into a sixth hour. In the end, the final's four hours and fifty-four minutes, which will have felt like a lifetime to Andy Murray, his team, his family and supporters, were nothing compared to the decades of history that had weighed ever heavier on the Scotsman's shoulders as he progressed surely but achingly slowly on his trajectory to become the first British Grand Slam winner in three quarters of a century. 

For that yawning chasm of time, the record books simply noted the lack of a British male taking home any of tennis's biggest prizes. But though the five-set final between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic was long, epic even, the result instantly swatted away the many years of nagging doubts, the false hopes, the also-rans, the just falling short, all of that was gone at a stroke. By becoming Britain's first major winner since Fred Perry in 1936, Andy Murray banished the past and erased the need for that statistic to ever matter for the future of his career.

Before the final had even begun, Great Britain had enjoyed an incredible, opulent summer of sport, dominated quite rightly by the achievements of the GB Olympic and Paralympic athletes, with victories and success stories of sporting ability and determination that have led many to laud 2012 as the best year for British sport since 1966 (it is, quite arguably, far greater). The London 2012 heroics overshadow astonishing achievements such as a British Tour-de-France winner and Rory McIlroy's second career major, while there may still be a British Formula One champion before the year is over.

And yet. Has any British sportsperson had quite the 2012 that Andy Murray has?* He reached two Grand Slam finals, winning one, a got to a semi final and a quarter final in the other two Slams. He responded to the gut-wrenching Wimbledon final defeat against Roger Federer by winning an Olympic gold medal just weeks later, against the same opponent upon the very same grass. That medal gave him the confidence to suggest that he could beat the best when it mattered, something which had been hinted at when he had break points to serve for the match in a gladiatorial Australian Open semi-final with Novak Djokovic in January, and again when he took a set off Federer at Wimbledon in June. 

But despite the positives, both of those tournaments still ended in heartbreak, a by now familiar sight of the Brit failing just short (Murray having made the semi finals or final of eight of his previous 11 majors). Indeed, this year's Wimbledon showed how close he was to winning a Grand Slam, but as cruel as it was hopeful, with four defeats in four Slam finals, it also gave rise to more doubts: was it simply beyond him, in a time of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, to break the duck, to lay the ghost of Fred Perry to rest, to go where Tim Henman had occasionally threatened to tread, and win a major? 

There is no doubt that Federer is one of the greatest three players of all time, and yet in the same era, Nadal and Djokovic are two players who can go toe to toe with him. Murray's increasingly competitive matches against these three titans over the last two years has shown he too was able to win against the highest calibre of opponent - but his performances, while pointing towards potential Grand Slam success, simply added to a weight of expectation so great it was matched only by the sheer awesome magnitude of the obstacles in the way. 

But at the US Open, the final Slam of 2012, nurtured carefully and skilfully by Ivan Lendl, and having learned the toughest and most valuable of lessons from his career highs and lows, Andy Murray, the best returner in the game and perhaps, with Nadal's injury problems, the fittest too, finally delivered the result his whole career had been building up to, the result many had predicted but had begun to doubt, something British supporters had dared to dream about, then dared to hope for without belief: a result that makes 1936 an almost meaningless year for British tennis, now that 2012 is the year Andy Murray won his first Grand Slam.

And it is his first - when he broke into the top 10, years ago, the question was: can Murray win a Grand Slam? After reaching his first Slam final in 2010, the question was: when would Murray win a Grand Slam? After losing his fourth Slam final in 2012, the question was: will Murray ever win a Grand Slam? Now, only one question remains. Not if, not when, but: how many? 

*Murray, as you've probably guessed by now, would be my choice for BBC Sports Personality of the Year