Andy Murray is arguably the best men’s tennis player in the world at the moment. The Scot won his second Wimbledon crown in July before claiming his second gold medal at the Olympic Games earlier this month. But the looming question is, would Murray have won those titles if world number one Novak Djokovic made it that deep in those tournaments?
There are no theoreticals in tennis. One player wins a match and another loses. Someone wins a tournament and everyone else loses. Djokovic shockingly lost at Wimbledon in the third round before getting blasted off the court by Juan Martin del Potro in their Rio opener. He did not make his way through the draws like his main rival. Murray has simply been better this summer.
Then there is Rafael Nadal, who is still recovering from a left wrist injury after managing a solid showing at the Olympic Games. Roger Federer on the other hand is starring in funny commercials rather than playing tournaments as he deals with his own health issues that are keeping him out until 2017.
So yes, it is convenient that now is the time that Murray is looked at as a clear second favorite if not a co-favorite at this year’s U.S. Open. But there is one problem with all of this – it is not like Murray just all of a sudden became a fantastic tennis player.
Murray has won three Grand Slam titles, two Olympic gold medals in singles along with a silver in mixed doubles, reached eight additional major finals of which he lost to Djokovic in six, and led Great Britain to a Davis Cup championship. We have become blinded by greatness as Federer (17), Nadal (14), Djokovic (12) have dominated the Grand Slams for over a decade. That trio has made winning look normal in a world where virtually everyone loses, while the guy who is tied for ninth during the Open era in Grand Slam finals, Murray, has played a seemingly distant fourth fiddle.
But to understand why Murray deserves the spotlight and will continue to succeed takes looking back at his growth.
It was clear from a relatively early age that Murray had the talent to become great. Jamie Murray – Andy’s brother, who briefly held the number one doubles ranking this season – remembers his younger sibling proving his abilities quite early on.
“Probably when he played at Queen’s and Wimbledon the first time,” Jamie remembered when Andy won a couple of matches at both the prestigious grass court warm-up for the sport’s oldest Grand Slam and his first Wimbledon right after. “I think then he started to realize that he did have a special talent and that he could do a lot of great things on the court because the guys that he was beating were really experienced players, players at the top of the game. He was in there beating them or at least competing hard with them.”
Murray was 18 at the time and clearly his ability was there. But talent alone does not win Grand Slams. Ross Hutchins – former world number 26 in doubles, current Chief Player Officer for the ATP World Tour and one of Murray’s closest friends – grew up with the world number two and spent plenty of time training with him.
“Many times on running tracks when we would do training stations he would just be going the extra mile, doing one more, making sure that he would finish strong and be completing things when that just didn’t seem humanly possible,” Hutchins said of extended periods of time during which he’d join Murray and his team in Miami and Barcelona amongst other locations for training camps. “It was staggering the training that he was doing, that I was trying to keep up with, and we pushed each other but he was driving these training blocks like you couldn’t believe.”
Today Murray is a 29-year-old who says that he, “would imagine if I’m lucky I’d be playing at this level for three, four more years, max, I would think.” Perhaps this is the peak of his career and sure, you would expect him to put the work in.
But what Hutchins describes is from almost a decade ago – when Murray was first on the rise. Even before those moments, Murray had moved to Spain to train as a 15-year-old.
“Something that not many British people do is move away from the UK and away from family and friends on your own and go to a place that you don’t know anyone there,” Hutchins said. “I guess that’s a prime example of putting tennis at the absolute forefront of everything.”
There was no way Murray could guarantee that he would become the tennis player he is today, but he certainly was going to do everything in his power to do so.
“He would never falter in anything his team asked him to do and that’s not the case with a lot of people,” Hutchins said. “A lot of people have control over their team even because they’re the employer but he would always respect what the team said and just ultimately do it.”
That may seem surprising considering Murray has been seen yelling toward his box as often as Nadal has pulled at his bottoms – okay, maybe not that much but you get the point. “Probably sometimes what you see on the court is probably not what you see off the court,” Jamie laughed.
“He expects high standards of himself,” Hutchins said of Murray’s attitude during matches. “It’s not aimed at anyone and anyone who says it is is incorrect. It’s him wanting to do well and being competitive and demanding the best out of himself. That’s all it is, it is a way that he sort of shows his frustration more than others who can keep it in.”
But nevertheless, showing frustration on the court is bad for your tennis. As much as Murray’s desire to succeed has pushed him to many achievements for over a decade now, it probably did not help in those moments on the court.
Fast forward to this year, when Murray fell into a slump after reaching the Australian Open final. The spring hard court swing at Indian Wells and Miami went poorly, and the beginning of the clay court season started off the same way.
“There was just one match where I didn’t play well against Benoit Paire,” Murray recalled – his attention to detail was evident enough that he probably could have described what happened game-by-game – from his second round match in Monte Carlo on red clay. “He served for the match in the third set and I managed to turn that around and gained a lot of confidence from that and kicked on from there, really.”
Part of that could be attributed to a change in Murray’s mindset.
In early February Murray’s wife, Kim Sears, gave birth to the couple’s first child, Sophia. While Hutchins said that he has not noticed his friend’s dedication to the sport waning in any way, having a kid does change things.
“Well, I mean, tennis isn’t the most important thing in my life anymore,” Murray said. “I think having that different perspective helps a lot. Maybe not putting so much pressure on myself and before a match I’m not stressing as much as I used to.”
Maybe it is a coincidence that Jamie noticed his brother’s on-court attitude changing as well. Maybe it is not. But regardless, a more relaxed and focused Andy Murray whacking balls around the tennis court is not good for his competition.
“He knows how to play. He does have a great game and you know it’s getting out there each day and putting in a good level of performance. You can’t do that if you’re screaming and shouting at everyone and everything. It’s hard enough playing your opponent,” Jamie said. “I think he’s done a better job of that, managing that and I think with [Ivan] Lendl in his corner, I think he gives him that assurance too and I think that shows in the way he played at Wimbledon this year.”
So for over a decade, Murray has worked and worked and worked some more to reach the top of the tennis world. In a sense you kind of just want Murray to get there for being so close for so long. While possible, it is unlikely that he will grab the top spot in the rankings. But he is “only” 1,215 points behind Djokovic in this year’s points race, which is a small gap compared to the usual deficit behind the Serbian recently.
Murray has always been his own greatest asset with his desire and work ethic. Now, he has seemingly done a better job of defeating his second toughest opponent behind Djokovic – himself. That will lead to only more success, and while he has been cast under the shadow of three of the best players ever, it is his time to step out into the sun.