By Matt Roberts
So Andy Murray has done it. Over ten years since first beating Roger Federer, nine since winning his first ATP tournament, eight since reaching his first Slam final and four since lifting his first Slam title, he’s scaled the heights and is World No.1 at last.
Despite that wait, it’s probably come around quicker than most good judges anticipated. Although he turned professional eleven years ago and Murray is the second oldest first-time No.1, only recently has it felt like his real mission. Murray himself has admitted he doubted he would ever make it, and even six months ago it must have seemed a distant dream, such was Djokovic’s colossal points total and lead following June’s French Open Final. But over the summer Murray crept up, and autumn has seen all the pieces fall into place. Namely, Murray has kept winning – the Paris Masters was the fourth straight event he’s left holding the trophy – and Djokovic has kept faltering.
The drama came on Friday afternoon in the French capital with a pair of enthralling matches with big implications. First, Marin Cilic held on to oust Djokovic in the quarter-finals– his first victory over the Serb in fifteen attempts. Murray then used all his survival skills to defeat Tomas Berdych, saving seven set points in an excruciating first set-tiebreak and regrouping after dropping serve at 5-4 in the second. It was nail-biting stuff, but meant that Murray’s quest had come down to one simple equation: beat Milos Raonic and he was World No.1.
In the end, the moment of ascension was cruelly underwhelming, occurring courtesy of Raonic’s withdrawal. But becoming the best is never about one moment. It’s about a body of hard work, tenacity, patience, perseverance, talent and will. Murray has all that in abundance, and the affection with which he’s held in the tennis community was clear; his crowning met with a wave of congratulations from fellow players on social media. These are the people who can truly understand his efforts, relate to the agony of the Versa Climber and look up to him as inspiration.
For the last decade, Murray has been a constant part of tennis’ elite, bringing a familiarity to a Briton competing for and winning the sport’s major titles. In this age of hyperbole, where almost everything is the ‘best’ or ‘greatest’, it can be easy to take Murray for granted and assume that his like will come along again soon. He will probably retire within the next five years; certainly the next ten. Then we will all realise.
It’s why Sunday’s newspaper front pages were historic. The Times showed Murray grinning, with the caption ‘Murray’s winning smile that says I’M NO.1’. The Telegraph, meanwhile, went with ‘Introducing your new World No.1’ alongside an image of Murray walking through the court entrance tunnel at Paris-Bercy. The tunnel image is an appropriate one, indicating a journey followed by an emergence which has been the story of Murray’s career. In particular, it’s been about living through the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic stronghold, improving thanks to it, and ultimately seizing his moment. As Roger Federer tweeted, there’s a new king in town.
This is Murray’s turn for the spotlight, but his career is closely connected with and unavoidably compared to those of the aforementioned trio. The second half of 2016 has simply felt like Murray’s time. Serving better than ever, particularly behind that once bothersome second delivery, and with Federer absent through injury, Nadal competing irregularly and Djokovic experiencing a peculiarly barren period, Murray has stepped up and pocketed title after title, and he deserves enormous credit for doing so.
And it’s not like he hasn’t beaten his biggest rivals this year either; he won his most recent meeting with Nadal in Madrid and beat Djokovic in Rome too. On this autumn run he’s been beating those in front of him – the likes of Dimitrov, Isner, Pouille, Berdych, Simon – and beating them handily. There’s been an inevitability to most of his matches, which is a trait of all true No.1s. Federer had it for years, Nadal had it on clay for a decade and Djokovic had it until very recently. Now it’s Murray’s turn.
From 2000-2003, there were seven different men’s No.1s. In the 4662 days from February 2nd 2004 to November 6th 2016, just the three, each with three separate stints: Federer’s totalling 302 weeks, Djokovic’s 223 and Nadal’s 141. It’s been an unprecedented period of dominance, bookended by a pair of Andys: Roddick and Murray.
But the Times They Are A Changin’ in men’s tennis. For Murray’s ranking is not the only noteworthy one this week. Nadal is down at No.8, Federer an uncomfortable No.16 – the first time he’s been outside the Top-10 since October 2002. The Big-4 has already been through a couple of stages in its time. We’ve had the vibrant years: when the rivalries were fresh and developing. We’ve had the golden years: when the matches were countless, the winning endless, and the memories priceless. Now we’re in the twilight years: the encounters more sparse and the end nearing.
It’s hard to say what will come next. Will Murray cement his position and stay at the top for a lengthy period? Or will Djokovic’s slump be just a blip? Or will 2017 usher in new challengers…Nishikori, Zverev, Thiem? All are strong possibilities, but one thing is for sure: tennis is healthier when the top spot is up for grabs. It’s part of why the Federer-Nadal rivalry transcended the sport. It’s part of why the 18 month period from January 2015-June 2016, when Djokovic was virtually unrivalled, was remarkable but at the same time, dare I say, a little dull.
For some tennis players, their ranking is like their passport, ensuring which tournaments they can enter and how much money than can earn. Once you get to the top 32, it’s about jostling for seeding positions and the better draws. And at the very top, it’s about status. World No.1s should walk differently: more confidently and intimidatingly. It’s a stride that might not come easily for Murray, for so long the chaser; it will certainly bring an added pressure at next week’s World Tour Finals. But with so much uncertainty beneath him, he should embrace it and enjoy the view from the top.
As ever with tennis, the tour moves on, leaving little time for reflection. For Murray, the moment will come to look back on his increasingly impressive CV. While he officially ticked the World No.1 box on Monday 7th November, he had it secured two days earlier. So for his fans and followers of British sport, there’s now a new reason to remember, remember, the fifth of November.
Photograph: Wikimedia Commons