June 27, 2013
“I don’t even remember what happened” – Andy Murray, when being asked about the last point of his Wimbledon triumph.
In this decidedly golden age in the sport, they can’t all be classics matches.
On the seventh day of July, 77 years after the last British man claimed the most cherished prize in tennis, Andy Murray notched seven breaks of Novak Djokovic’s serve and finally – finally – ended one of the most storied droughts in sports, winning Wimbledon, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4.
But never has a straight sets triumph end in such agonizingly tense fashion. After all, making history shouldn’t be too easy. And for a Wimbledon that will be forever remembered as one of the strangest and thrilling in recent memory, it just felt right that the final should conclude in such painfully thrilling fashion.
As the enraptured throngs packed tight into famed Centre Court at the All England Club – not to mention the entire United Kingdom – breathlessly awaited their chance to let out a jubilant scream, Murray nearly fell victim to the seemingly unyielding reserves of fight that are contained within the body of Djokovic.
After being up 40-0 in the final game, Murray proceeded to get tight as Djokovic went for broke and Murray suddenly found himself down a break point. One has to wonder if Murray – and his native country – would have ever recovered if he had somehow let that third set slip away.
But on the fourth match point in that game Murray was able to deliver on his immense talent and he ended three quarters of a century of sporting futility in Great Britain (one must be reminded that Murray is Scottish-born and not English).
On the unusually hot London afternoon, Murray played a tactically perfect match in defeating a clearly tired and not-sharp Djokovic. The unusually high number of unforced errors-to-winners ratio for Djokovic, 40-31, is testament to how untidy his game was all afternoon.
Whether it was the extraordinarily draining effort that he needed in order to hold off the cannon forehands of Juan Martin Del Potro in their epic semifinal just two days before or the fact that it just wasn’t his day, what was clear from the start is that Djokovic’s serve, which was nearly perfect the entire tournament, let him down Sunday. This was partly due to the fact that Murray himself possesses one of the best returns in the game but the lack of free points on his service games added to Djokovic’s fatigue.
And, conversely, Murray’s serve, which has too often been his major weak point, was superb. Consider that Murray won 72 percent of his first serves Sunday and, more tellingly, 42 percent of his second serve points – a very high percentage against Djokovic, the unquestioned finest returner in the game.
Murray also mixed up his ground game beautifully all afternoon. He did this by varying strategies of power and finesse. On numerous key points Murray summoned the abilities of Del Potro by hitting brutally powerful cross-court forehands that wrong-footed Djokovic. Additionally, Murray utilized his slice shots to outstanding effect throughout the match, making Djokovic dig balls out inches off the ground, thereby not allowing Djokovic to take the ball early and dictate rallies as is usually the case. In fact, one could argue that it was Murray's use of the slice, in both offensive and defensive positions, that made the tactical difference in the outcome.
When two players who own such distinctly similar defensive styles, as do Djokovic and Murray, the match usually comes down to who decides to take chances and be the more aggressive player.
Yet during Sunday’s final that didn’t prove to be the case. It was Djokovic who ventured into the forecourt far more frequently – 52 forays to the net versus 37 for Murray – and it was Djokovic who attempted to take control of points sooner. But Murray was able to turn defense into offense and this rattled Djokovic. There were several occasions when one thought the point over in favor of Djokovic only to see Murray track down one last ball and force Djokovic to get tight. This must be slightly alarming for Djokovic because the same thing happened during his incredible semifinal loss to Rafael Nadal in the French Open semifinals; Nadal would throw up a few desperate lobs and Djokovic missed a couple of easy overheads.
Another aspect to Djokovic ‘s game that wasn’t clicking was his down-the-line backhand. During Djokovic’s win over Del Potro that shot also abandoned him significantly but because he served so brilliantly didn’t matter as much. But on a day when his serve wasn’t nearly as stellar, Djokovic wasn’t able to get away with a sub-par ground game against such a strategic player as Murray.
Of course, it was the mental and emotional aspects that had the chance to overwhelm the occasion for Murray. A year after coming achingly close to winning Wimbledon when he lost to Roger Federer in five sets, Murray knew that he couldn’t allow himself any major lapses in concentration or positive thinking. And though there were a few glimpses of the old Murray with some self-excoriating episodes and some slumped shoulders, Murray never lost the newfound focus that is an obvious byproduct of working with his coach Ivan Lendl.
Winning the Olympics last year proved that Murray was capable of wining a significant title. When he followed that up with a US Open championship, he could rightfully be mentioned as being “part of the contestation” with Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.
And now that he’s won Wimbledon – there’s nothing left. His place in history is secure and it’s all a bonus from this point forward.
FINAL THOUGHTS: I can’t think of any other top player in recent memory who played in two consecutive Grand Slam semifinals of such truly epic proportions as Novak Djokovic did when losing to Nadal at the French Open and then defeating Del Potro at Wimbledon … the six-week lead-up to the US Open should be exciting with Federer and Nadal both wanting to re-assert their position in the game, Djokovic and Murray likely fighting it out for the No. 1 spot (Nadal has a chance at No. 1 as well) and a hopefully rejuvenated Del Potro looks to be part of the mix … if anyone doubts that the English are the best tennis spectators that should have been put to rest after Sunday’s final. The way in which their partisan cheering elevated the occasion without impeding Djokovic’s efforts should be a guide to how fans behave. In fact, the other Slams should just copy everything Wimbledon does and the sport would be better off – no on-court advertising, rational scheduling, a roof over the main court, etc.