Dunblane yesterday evening and, an hour after Andy Murray has won the men’s singles title at Wimbledon, the streets are still thronged with cheerful revellers. Smiles and saltires abound. Locals and visitors cluster for photographs around the golden letterbox commemorating Murray’s Olympic triumph last year. Journalists have been despatched to pen colour pieces from Murray’s home town. On the Stirling road two young girls, one sporting a saltire as a kind of sari, hold up a poster of the local hero; every passing car honks its horn in celebratory salutation. The boy has done it. Not bad, not bad at all.
This morning, acres of newsprint are devoted to Murray’s victory. It is, as you might have heard, the first time in 77 years that a British man has won Wimbledon. Murray, in fact, is the first Briton to do so while wearing short trousers. Giddy stuff. There is, indeed, a palpable sense of pinch-me-has-this-really-happened?
But the most significant feature of Murray’s achievement is that it is not so very surprising at all. Because Andy Murray is one hell of a tennis player. The kind of tennis player who deserves to win Grand Slam titles because he’s good enough to prevail on merit, not because he got lucky or, in sporting parlance, “hot” for a given fortnight. Barring injury or uncommon doses of misfortune he will win several more, sealing his status as one of the immortals.
Given the history of British players at Wimbledon perhaps it is inevitable that many people appear to have interpreted Murray’s championship as some kind of miracle. Wondrous but improbable. But that does Murray a disservice. This was no kind of miracle, no improbable fluke. It may have been a long time coming but it was coming, right enough.
In another time Murray would not have had to wait so long. This was his eighth tilt at Wimbledon; only Goran Ivanisevic, who prevailed at the 14th attempt, had to wait longer (in the open era) before triumphing on the lawns of south-west London. (Insert obligatory reference to Robert the Bruce and a plucky spider here.)
This, of course, makes Murray’s achievement even sweeter. Decades hence old men will regale their grandchildren with tales of this Golden Age which, in terms of longevity and dominance, surpasses even the Connors-Borg-McEnroe-Lendl era. Today’s Big Four – Murray, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer – have between them won the last eight Australian titles, the last nine French Opens, the last 11 Wimbledons and eight of the last nine American championships. There has never before been such sustained dominance and there may never be such an era again.
Wikipedia tells me that between Wimbledon 2005 and this year’s French Open, the Big Four’s Grand Slam record against the field was 551-46. For the rest of the field it’s been like finding yourself in the same weight division as Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns and Roberto Duran. That is to say, pretty unpleasant.
But nothing is guaranteed. The first inkling this country – by which I mean Scotland and Britain – might at long last produce a true champion came as long ago as 2004. That was the year Andy Murray won the junior US Open. But if even heady junior success indicates a player may have a future on the senior tour it hardly guarantees it. Gael Monfils won the other three junior slams in 2004 but, despite a fine career, he’s not threatened to break into the top four. And Monfils has been a success. Who, except the keenest tennis aficionado, could tell you much about the likes of junior champions such as Florian Mergea (Wimbledon 2003), Ryan Sweeting (US Open 2005) or Alexandre Sidorenko (Australian Open 2006)?
Indeed, another way of measuring the remarkable dominance of the top quartet is to observe that an entire tennis generation has turned pro since Murray first earned a top four ranking in 2008 and none of them have yet come close to making the top four a top five. (Juan Martin del Potro has come closest but, being just 13 months younger than Murray and Djokovic, he should be considered their contemporary, not one of their potential successors). The Big Four aren’t just better than the rest, they’re better than the future too.
If age has rumbled Federer and infirmity questions Nadal’s future away from his beloved clay, we should at least have several more years of Murray and Djokovic. Born a week apart, they have been friends since they were first identified as the coming men on the ATP Tour. Djokovic’s disappointment yesterday was tempered by his pleasure in his friend’s achievement. In today’s tennis nice guys finish first and second.
So it was not a surprise that Murray climbed his Everest yesterday. He’d seen the mountain top often enough and knew the route to its summit. This was, after all, his seventh Grand Slam final. The great masses of casual tennis followers – those people who only really pay attention two weeks a year – have been slow to appreciate just how good Murray is and has been for some years now. He had just turned 21 when he first reached one of these occasions and if he has had to be patient and brave in learning from his disappointments no-one can say he has not deserved his triumphs. For a while there was a Big Three “and Andy Murray“. Not any longer there isn’t. You can drop the “and” now.
It took too long for some to warm to him too. For some reason there is an expectation that sporting heroes should be as emotionally incontinent off the field as they are focused on it. That’s never been Murray’s style. But nor has he hidden his character. It’s always been on display for those who cared to look. Laconic and clever and funny but a little shy too. If that’s not your thing then fine but that’s up to you. It’s not Andy Murray’s problem.
He’s had to endure more than a fair share of foolishness too. Apparently being a mesmerising shot-maker is not always enough. The British press is amply stocked with chippy misanthropes hellbent on cutting the likes of Andy Murray down to size. It happened to Tim Henman before him. Henman, so impeccably upper-middle-class, wasn’t enough of a “dog” to win; Murray apparently was too much of a dog to win “the right way”. Nonsense all of it. (Nonsense as well to claim Henman was some kind of feeble, under-achieving loser: like Murray, he exhausted his tank of talent. They both know this.)
Scottish? British? Both? Who cares? If local associations mean Murray is “one of us” he also belongs to people everywhere who simply appreciate great tennis. Sport is in large part a quest for the epic. As the Italian journalist Dino Buzzati wrote (about the 1949 Giro d’Italia as it happens, but the lesson applies to more than cycling), there is something “crazy and preposterous” about sport but it serves a purpose because it is “one of the last meccas of the imagination, a stronghold of romanticism, besieged by the gloomy forces of progress, and it refuses to surrender.”
Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray. Savour it. Because you won’t see its like again.