Murray bridges gap to join Grand Slam elite

Thu, Sep 13, 2012, 01:00

TENNIS:FOR YEARS, more than seven to be exact, men’s tennis was defined by its three best players: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. They divvied up almost all of the Grand Slam trophies, and in the process created a separation from the pack.

The ATP World Tour split into two divisions. There was Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. And there was everybody else. Andy Murray stood closer to them than anyone. But he also stood apart. That started to change this summer and became official when, with his hornet’s nest hair and celebrity rooting section, he won the US Open and collected his first Grand Slam title, the first for a British man in 76 years.

Murray became the fourth player to win a major title in 2012. He followed Djokovic at the Australian Open, Nadal at the French and Federer at Wimbledon. In the process, he joined their exclusive club and added credence to the term Big Four, of which he was previously the only member without championship hardware in his trophy case.

“I’m very happy to be part of this era,” said Murray. “Everyone probably would agree it’s one of the best ever.” For Djokovic, the opponent Murray toppled in five windy sets on Monday, the narrative arc felt a bit familiar. For years, before Murray became this Murray, Djokovic was the player who looked up to – and at – Federer and Nadal. Djokovic was, it seemed, born in the wrong era, alongside two of the greatest players in tennis history.

In 2011, Djokovic changed that. He dominated Federer and Nadal. He won almost every match for six months. Thus the narrative again shifted, from Federer’s regal reign to Nadal’s rivalry with Federer to Djokovic’s flirtation with a season that ranked among the best to date.

Djokovic said his ascendance came mostly from belief, from understanding what it took to make the leap from just outside the upper echelon to inside it. Murray (25) born one week before Djokovic, made that jump this summer, when he lost in the Wimbledon final, won an Olympic gold medal and triumphed at the Open.

With that, the story of modern men’s tennis shifted once again. Marian Vajda, Djokovic’s coach, said on the eve of the final that he could not remember a time when the top four players seemed as evenly matched as now.

Before Monday, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic combined to win 29 of the previous 30 Grand Slam singles trophies. They mostly took turns, though. Nadal routinely won the French. Federer and Djokovic won major tournaments in bunches. Murray played the role of perennial runner-up. Now, Vajda said, it feels, at every tournament, as if any of the four can win.

Djokovic, for instance, a contender for player of the year and one of the season’s most consistent performers, has lost his last five matches against the other three. Murray, however, dismissed the argument that he should win player of the year, saying Federer, with his rise back to No 1, deserved the honour.

“Us four, we are taking this game to another level,” said Djokovic. “It’s a privilege to be part of this era. I’m not sure what’s going to happen the next couple of years. Andy winning makes it even more competitive and more interesting for people to watch it.”

In the latest rankings released Monday, Federer (31) who will play in the Davis Cup for Switzerland this week, remains No 1. Djokovic and Murray, who are each taking the next few weeks off, are No 2 and No 3. Nadal (26) – sidelined since July with a knee injury that is expected to keep him out for two more months – is fourth, his lowest ranking since March 2010.

Murray said he arrived at his place in tennis history only because of all the years he suffered against the others. Nadal’s physicality pushed Murray into harder workouts. He studied Federer’s consistency. He watched Djokovic do what he wanted to do, take that next step, from contender to champion.

All of this, said Murray, made him a better player, even as it added to his angst.

“Maybe if I played in another era, I would have won more,” he said. “But I wouldn’t have been as good.”

Murray made his news media rounds in the hours after his seminal triumph and again on Tuesday, admitting on the Today show that he had barely slept. He conducted dozens of interviews and answered hundreds of questions and even cracked a smile or five.

Reporters asked him to find the context in his accomplishment, but he seemed too tired to put it all together the way he had against Djokovic.

He was still processing, said the victor; still trying to make sense of it himself.

As Murray took questions late on Monday on the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium, he pointed to the spot where Djokovic’s final shot sailed long.

“I actually thought the return was in when he hit it,” said Murray. “And then, I don’t think he ever challenged it, but it was very close and he hit it so hard. I was just glad it was out.”

He added: “I’ll remember this part of the court for a while.”

In the locker room Murray hugged his coach, Ivan Lendl, the person besides the player most responsible for the events of the past few months.

Someone sprayed champagne over them. Lendl swore, said Murray, “and that was that”.

The Big Three had officially expanded.

New York Times Service

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