Andy Murray had one hell of a 2015. After returning to the big-match scene in the Australian Open of January 2015 (where he lost to Djokovic in the final), Murray fought to a semi-final in the French (losing to Djokovic again) and a Wimbledon semi-final as well (lost to Federer). Let’s not talk about the US Open too much, but he broke into the top two of the world rankings towards the end of the year and finally beat Djokovic to win the Rogers Cup. All smiles, right? Nope.
What we have as a nation in Andy Murray is a world-class player. His counter-punch style is the most effective of that brand of tennis in the world game, his groundstrokes are as heavy as they come and nobody has perfected the lob like the Scotsman has. He’s supposedly better than Federer right now, and he should be just a shade below Djokovic. In this year’s Australian Open campaign, he smashed young hope Alexander Zverev and Aussie talent Bernard Tomic among others to reach the quarter-finals, and didn’t stop there with a four-set win over David Ferrer and an efficient capitalisation on the injury to Milos Raonic to reach the final. Murray then took the centre stage with Novak Djokovic in a supposed clash of legends, where he lost in convincing fashion.
The reason for the word ‘supposed’ is simple; Andy Murray is not a legend of tennis. Forget about what biased British names from the past, like Sue Barker and Andrew Castle particularly, might tell you in their punditry, because a man who has won 2 Grand Slams will not be remembered in 20 years time as a great of the game. Djokovic, who has 11 and will get more, will be recognised as one of the best ever. Outside of this country, Murray will be a footnote. Ask your everyday non-sports fan who Marin Cilic is, and they’ll give you a blank face, yet Cilic has half as many Slams as Murray. Murray is matched by the well-appreciated but less renowned Lleyton Hewitt and Stan Wawrinka for Slams, and you wonder if Johanna Konta might get more than two in the future. How can Murray justify this inability to win the big one?
There are two big reasons which might seem to shut down the argument: Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. ‘They’re just too good!’ you might say, or ‘Murray hasn’t played his best against them!’ The second of these points sits down better with me, but the time has long gone where we can sit back and sympathise with our hero. Federer is a 34-year-old man with a crazy amount of talent and tactical nous, but whom Djokovic has now outstripped by far. Murray should be able to beat Federer if Djokovic can, yet has found himself shut out twice in recent months (once at Wimbledon, once at the Cincinnati Masters).
What is going on here? Murray’s baseline play is similar in many regards to Djokovic, he’s beaten Federer before and he’s several years younger. I don’t care about how much of a genius Federer might be, because Murray is a tennis genius himself who should have at least 5 Grand Slams under his belt. Then we come to Djokovic, whom we keep calling ‘unstoppable’ when he isn’t. To my mind, it is a simple fact that Djokovic should not have won Wimbledon; Kevin Anderson had the win in his hands in the fifth set of their fourth-round match and simply choked.
Novak played poorly against Gilles Simon at the same stage in this past Australian Open and a better player would have finished him. He’s undoubtedly an incredible player, but (admittedly as an armchair critic) I see no reason for Murray not to be able to do it; if you can stay out of the long, slow rallies by whacking it with heavy groundstrokes past him for winners quickly and at every opportunity, slipping in a few tasty drop shots and lobbing him after you’ve brought him up to the net (where he is only comfortable when he goes there of his own dictating choice), you’ll win. There’ll be plenty of errors, and this is easier said than done, but it’s straightforward enough. Murray can and should be picking up wins against these guys.
‘I feel like I’ve been here before.’ said Murray, with an ironic smile, in his losing speech. He’s been there five times before now, all of the losses coming against Djokovic or Federer. Forget about taking him for granted; we can’t accept five losses, even in finals. He’s proved that he belongs in the final almost every time since 2010, and he is far too talented not to win it. There is a whiff of a loser’s mentality emerging after all of the other finals he’s lost as well, including Wimbledon in 2012, which does not befit the insane ability of the player. If anybody can catch Djokovic, it’s Murray, but the first step is to take Federer out of the equation. It’s been too long that we’ve all been drooling over the ‘career renaissance’ of Federer, and Murray simply must prove at this stage that he hasn’t formed a mental block around the Swiss. If Murray can entrench himself as second-best, then it’s a start, but not enough has been done to reel Djokovic in. Andy, for goodness sake, win the bloody French Open in May. We’re sick of admiring the guy who finishes second.