by Matt Roberts
If Andy Murray’s first Wimbledon victory was as nerve-shredding as a straight-set win can be, then Sunday’s 6-4 7-6 (3) 7-6 (2) win over Milos Raonic was its pain-free, comprehensive and efficient opposite.
From the very first point of the final – when Murray steered a powerful serve into the corner before striking a clean forehand winner – it was clear Raonic had his work cut out. The Canadian has improved significantly in 2016 but still he was no match for Murray, the Briton skilfully exposing his weaknesses and nullifying his strengths.
It took Roger Federer 29 games to break Raonic’s booming serve in the semi-final on Friday. But Murray struck early, breaking in the seventh game of the first set courtesy of a forehand error from his opponent. While that was to be the only break of serve of the contest, Murray was in control throughout the 2h48m the pair spent on Centre Court.
The golden rule of facing a giant server is to protect your own delivery, and Murray managed that expertly. He faced just two break points in the match, both of them in the fifth game of the third set, and he fended them off without fuss.
Playing Murray – so adept at all facets of the game – is a complex task, and Raonic found his gameplan stuck in a state of ineffective in-betweenness. When the Canadian opted to stay back, Murray laid bare his laboured movements and imprecise footwork. When he came forward, Murray invariably whipped the ball back past him. Raonic, with his assortment of coaches, calls himself the ‘CEO of Milos Raonic Inc.’ But Murray is unquestionably the ‘CEO of Dipping, Unreturnable Passing Shots.’ Time and again Murray picked Raonic off at the net, especially with his backhand, as the Canadian’s play became ever-more predictable.
Raonic is used to firing down aces and cruising through service games. Before the final, he’d served 137 aces in the tournament. Over three sets against Murray, he managed just eight. Murray’s hand skills and reflexes are peerless, and he diffused the Milos Missile with apparent ease, at one stage returning a 147mph bullet and winning the point two shots later.
Victory for Murray was always going to lack the momentous, euphoric feel of 2013. Then, it was about ending a nation’s torturous wait and, after 77 long years, helping British tennis to move on from Fred Perry. On Sunday, with the country in a state of near-depression – poetically emphasised by the noticeable lack of union jack-bearing spectators – Murray was concerned simply with ending his own drought.
A lot has happened to Murray since that scorching day back in 2013, on and off court. He’s become a husband and a father, recovered from back surgery, led Britain to Davis Cup glory, conquered clay and established himself as the World No.2. But the one honour missing was another grand slam trophy, the yardstick for success in modern day tennis.
All fortnight Murray had looked the likely winner, even more so when top seed Novak Djokovic tumbled unexpectedly to Sam Querrey in the third round. The Briton dropped just two sets en route to the title, both of them against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in what can put down as an increasingly rare mental lapse.
Murray is often lauded for his defence, and rightly so. He scrambles and retrieves on grass as well as anyone, constantly directing the ball into uncomfortable positions for his opponents. This is a Djokovic trait. But unlike the World No.1, Murray can often choose to rely too heavily on his defensive prowess in the early rounds, instead of perfecting the aggressive style he needs to adopt to beat the world’s best. However, with Ivan Lendl back, Murray has upped his ruthlessness, choosing to play purposeful tennis and deliver forehand haymakers rather than jabs.
Jamie Delgado should take a hefty portion of credit for Murray’s latest triumph. He helped get Murray back on track following the split with Mauresmo and oversaw the British No.1’s most prosperous ever clay court campaign. But Lendl gives Murray an edge. Like Muhammad Ali & Angelo Dundee, Michael Schumacher & Ross Brawn and Tiger Woods & Steve Williams, Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl is becoming one of sport’s great double acts. It can be no coincidence that in the five grand slam finals with Lendl in his box, Murray has won three of them. And in the six without? Zero.
Murray’s grand slam final conversation rate remains low. This was his eleventh shot, the same number as John McEnroe and one more than Boris Becker. Compared to McEnroe’s seven slams and Becker’s six, Murray is still lagging some way behind on three. But throughout his career Murray has repeatedly been dealt the harshest of hands in grand slam finals. In fact, this was his first major final against someone other than Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer. An easier championship match – if facing 140mph serves is easier – was long overdue, and Murray jumped at the chance, playing like the favourite and never once surrendering his command.
Becoming a two-time Wimbledon champion elevates Murray above the likes of Richard Krajicek, Jan Kodes and Michael Stich, all one-hit wonders at SW19. He now belongs to an elite list of twelve multiple champions at The All England Club in the Open Era. With three grand slams in total, Murray also draws level with a small group of men, among them the great Arthur Ashe. It’s fitting company, for Murray shares Ashe’s humility, as well the progressive, humanitarian views on equality that made Ashe such an icon.
The good news for Murray is that most men to have won three majors in the Open Era have then gone on to win a fourth, and the Briton is well-positioned to emulate them. As Murray pointed out, Djokovic’s early exit at Wimbledon should not detract from his dominance. This fortnight’s peculiar hiccup aside, Djokovic remains undisputedly the best player on the planet. But Murray is closing the gap. The ATP Singles Race for 2016 has the Serb just over 800 points in front of Murray. Having now won three of his last five tournaments, and reached the final of the other two, Murray is in the form of his life and with a summer containing the Olympic Games and the US Open, there is likely more to come. There is also a sense that Nadal and Federer – the leaders of the Big Four pack – are fading forces. Nadal’s body continues to fail him and, most disturbingly, Federer can’t shake the physical ailments that have disturbed his season so far, further confirming Murray as Djokovic’s biggest rival.
Already the debate about Murray’s place in the pantheon of British sporting greats has been reignited. People will voice different views and there can surely be no right answer. But one thing is for sure, on a day when four Brits won Wimbledon titles – Gordon Reid, Jordanne Whiley and Heather Watson joined Murray in lifting silverware – nobody British comes close to Murray in tennis terms. To watch Murray dissect the game of Milos Raonic was to watch true mastery of the sport. Perhaps his greatest achievement, at a moment when uncertainty engulfs the country, is bringing a welcome sense of familiarity to watching a Brit in action over grand slam final weekend. As a nation of tennis fans, we must treasure Andy Murray.
Photo: Marianne Bevis via Flickr