What a difference a month makes.
Four weeks to the day after a heartbreaking loss to the great Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final, a defeat that made the hometown hero a truly beloved figure after his sincere and touching post-match words, Andy Murray played the match of his life and demolished a clearly fatigued Federer, 6-2, 6-1, 6-4, to capture the Olympic gold medal Sunday in the city where he resides.
It was the first major title (if it can be called that, which will be discussed below) for Murray and the weight of expectation that the tall Scot has felt for years just got a lot lighter. After his triumph there was not the scowl that was ever-present a couple of years ago or the pained expression resulting from opportunities lost; rather, there was infectious joy etched all over Murray’s visage and it was nearly impossible not to feel happy for him and for Britain.
Federer, on the heels of his epic record-setting four-hour, three-set victory against Juan Martin Del Potro in the semifinals, clearly had little energy left. From the start, he appeared a step slow, and his shots lacked the usual pop and laser-like precision that is usually delivered from his super gifted right arm.
Throughout the unusually brief rout, Federer misfired from all areas of the court and the volleying clinic that the man some declare the greatest to ever wield a racquet put on during the Wimbledon final felt like a distant memory as Federer routinely netted easy volleys.
Yet even if Federer were at his best today it may very well have ended up with the same result. Murray played the match that all his fans have been dying to see him pull off – that is, playing with a relentless aggressiveness and not waiting around and playing the role of counter puncher.
Murray nailed serves down the middle of the court, refused to be timid on his second deliveries, and maintained an upper hand in the backhand-to-backhand rallies. But the most important aspect of all today – aside from the increased mental strength that Murray has exhibited since hiring Hall of Famer Ivan Lendl as his coach – was Murray’s imitation of Andre Agassi. That is, his consistent strategy of robbing Federer of time by taking the ball very early.
Murray has always had this ability to control rallies but all too often in the past he has been content to use his superb defending skills and prolong extended exchanges from the baseline. Now it appears that Murray has discovered that his true talents lie in dictating rather than responding. It’ll be interesting to watch at the U.S. Open in a few weeks if Murray continues to utilize this strategy. If he does maintain this aggressive posture he’ll likely have a better chance to truly be considered a member of the Big Four.
Was today’s victory as important as wining a Slam? No. Not by a very long shot. I’d put it somewhere between a Masters Series title and a Slam. It might even be considered the next best thing – but it will never rise up to the level of winning a major title.
The four events that make up the Grand Slam – Australian, French, U.S. Opens and Wimbledon) are stand-alone fortnights of three-out-of-five set play that aren’t lost in the warehousing of sports that is the Olympics. Additionally, because the Olympics always occurs between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open there will be the inevitable burnout effect from those who advance well at Wimbledon as all we the players who wish instead to save their reserves for New York in September.
The Olympics may well attain the prestige previously afforded the Davis Cup. Up until the 1960s, the Davis Cup was actually considered more important than Slams by some. But since the advent of Open tennis, the Davis Cup, while still a big deal especially in smaller countries, doesn’t have one-tenth the profile of the Slams. I see the Olympics as a replacement for Davis Cup – albeit only once every four years.
Federer has stated numerous times that he desperately wanted an Olympic gold medal. In fact he began speaking of wanting to win in London ever since the city was awarded the Games. But no matter how Federer wanted that elusive gold (this was likely his last legitimate shot at it) I’d bet that he wouldn’t trade any of his Slams for the gold medal. And the same is true for all players – one talks about winning Slams, and not a quadrennial event.
Having said all that, it was nonetheless a critical victory for Murray on Sunday and one that will have immediate and tangible impact on his game in the near future.
And who knows, maybe Murray will look like a favorite for the U.S. Open – consider, that if he were to win in Flushing, it would be the first year with four separate men’s winners at the Slams since 2003.