By Martin Young
While the dust settles on the remarkable milestone of Novak Djokovic winning the French Open and thus becoming one of only 5 men in the modern era to win all 4 major titles, and being the first man since Rod Laver to hold all 4 at the same time it would be easy to overlook the relative achievements of his opponent at Roland Garros and his own story and legacy, not least because it is actually likely to be one the key factors in Djokovic’s own story and legacy…
Let me explain!
Ever since Murray had a breakthrough summer in 2008, the most pertinent question from analysts and tennis fans is to ask whether or not there was such a thing as the ‘big 4’ or a ‘big 3 + 1’ in men’s tennis.
Whilst to those outside the inner sanctum of the game, this might seem like a pointless discussion for board posters to debate, to those who live and breathe the sport it is absolutely at the heart of how Murray and his legacy will be remembered long after he retires and crucially how we will order Djokovic, Nadal and Federer and everyone else worthy of inclusion.
For Murray, at face value 2 slam titles an Olympic Gold and a Davis Cup win, suggests a player who on his day was able to produce the goods but in the main was never really a force to be reckoned with. Since the mid to late 70’s and early 80’s right through today, the players we remember with such fond nostalgia are all players with multiple slam titles across various surfaces and define themselves and their era not just with the titles they won, but who they beat to win those titles. The list is a who’s who of men’s tennis and seamlessly demonstrates the evolution of the game across the sporting generations and evokes memories of rivalries and their names are synonymous with greatness. From Connors, Borg, Vilas, McEnroe, Wilander, Lendl, Edberg, Becker, Courier, Sampras, Agassi, Federer, Nadal through to Djokovic, 40 years of Tennis evolutionary history is appropriately defined just by this roll call of names.
So why is Murray important to this discussion? His record of wins certainly does not merit inclusion in the above roll call but when you look beyond just the win column you realise that here lies a unique player who deserves a wide lensed appraisal of his career, not only as stated for helping to decide where Djokovic sits but also to ensure that Murrays own place in history is understood and appreciated appropriately.
So how to go about this? Stats? References? Technical appraisal? Even gut? Perhaps a mixture of all, or perhaps none – I mean as I write this it is clear to me that I have formed my own opinion already but am I doing this for you the reader to agree and to convince you of some unknown truth or am I using this piece to help me justify what I already believe???? It is important at this point to make you aware that I am a big Andy Murray fan and have been since he won the US Open Junior title in 2004. As a Scotsman who was more of a watcher than player, I’d actually heard of the Murray brothers even before this win – there really was not much a precedent of any kind of success in Scottish tennis so naturally among those that were involved we invested early and at every stage through the Junior ranks he continued to deliver and “we” (“we” being the collectively small band of tartan tennis fans – and when I say “fans”, I mean the true fans like you !!!) continued to invest. This very day I sit dejected after watching Murray being well and truly defeated by Djokovic but instead of lamenting his play in sets 2 & 3, or bemoaning his bad luck to be playing in this era I feel compelled to get under the bonnet (or hood if you are not Anglicised) of what I have thought for a long time and that is, the feeling that the world of tennis continues to ‘under-appreciate’ Murray the tennis player, Murray the man and thus the legacy he will leave on the sport in a global sense.
The complexities of sport often boil down to the binary and in 1 vs 1 tennis this truly is the case – there are probably fewer sports where this is more pronounced – even in the top individual athlete sports, there are few that really follow the seeding/ranking like men’s tennis where the best are the best and they have to prove it by beating the best with so little room to hide. So when you boil down the numbers: 2 GS, 1 Olympic Gold, 1 Davis Cup and a career high ranking of 2, it makes the case for Murray being considered for the era defining list much much harder.
So beyond the emotional investment that I made early in this Scottish sportsman, there has to be something else that leads me to believe that he has a place amongst the pantheon of evolutionary defining tennis greats? Or am I gripped with blinkered fandom? Am I seduced by nationalistic pride? Is it that I feel some kind of need to protect the now not so young man from the cruelty of tennis fans who I believe under-appreciate his tennis but also don’t appreciate the virtues of the man himself?
Well clearly it is all these things, but to understand it and admit it is not to say my argument is wrong. Before delving deeper into the tennis, I feel the need to exhort the virtues of the man and to counter his critics. Humility, awareness, preparation and his insatiable work ethic are all on display and known by most. His humour is perhaps less obvious to the casual observer as he is quite introverted when in public, due in part to his nature and also in part to being very unfairly portrayed as anti-English by UK tabloid media when still a teenager – but still to those in the inner sanctum of the game his humour and likability is no secret. The biggest virtue that perhaps gets missed or misunderstood with Murray is his honesty. This honesty can easily be seen through his work ethic, his preparation and that insatiable need to get better and better but it is honesty on the court that actually makes him very appealing to me and very unappealing to many people. He shouts at those in his box, he berates them when things are not going well (even when things in the grand scheme of things are actually going pretty well!). But herein lies the absolutely stripped bare honesty of the man. He is not berating those in his box, he is 100% berating himself – they are merely the face of his own self-loathing and his fear that he is not able or worthy to execute the detailed plans they have collectively agreed on and put in place. There are many who are put off by his ‘antics’ on account of taste and decency; there are many who are put off as it is seen as disrespectful to those on the team. I am not saying anyone is wrong if they feel like this but they perhaps don’t appreciate that this is pure honesty and it is all directed at his own need to try and be the best he can be. The manifestation of this virtue is actually something that many in Scotland and the UK actually understand and ultimately appreciate – it’s the raw and obvious human imperfections that draw us in.
It is actually something that is acutely juxtaposed with Novak Djokovic and is very interesting as he also pursues his legacy. Has a top tennis player ever tried as hard to be liked on the court as much as Novak Djokovic? He works the crowd so beautifully (apart from the now very occasional outburst) when playing and being interviewed (very often in local tongue), he is polite, humble and in the case of the rare defeat is always very gracious in praising the good play of his opponent – You could construe me mentioning this as being the juxtaposition of Murrays honesty and think in some way I am calling what Djokovic does as fraudulent. This is absolutely not the case instead it is actually a reflection of how 2 men playing the same sport born a week apart are at very different points in their career and pursuit of legacy. Murray probably feels like he has under-achieved, not necessarily because he has, but because he pursues perfection and does so not to enjoy winning but because of the hatred of losing. Novak on the other hand has moved on from this and instead of being driven by a fear of losing he fights a different battle. That is because no matter how hard he has worked, what talent he has displayed and what wonderful achievements he has to date, there probably hasn’t been a commensurate amount of love and recognition thrown his way from the casual fan right through to the diehard tennis fan. That he isn’t Federer or Nadal is not his fault, but you can sense it is actually what drives him. Murray will get the love when playing in the UK and that is obviously a boost, but love is not what he seeks – he seeks his own perfection and unless that comes in the next few years it will not be the pursuit of love but the honest management of his own self-loathing that will drive him on.
So that’s Murray the man, and although it is cathartic to write this and to perhaps offer a view of him that makes people think differently it really doesn’t do anything in isolation to make a case for his place in the pantheon of greats… So what about Murray the player? Technical advances in equipment and surfaces make comparisons across the eras difficult (and potentially foolhardy – I have no doubt that the vast majority of people taking the time to read this actually have better appreciation of technique than I have)! Nonetheless I will forego the fear of ridicule and give it a go!
He possess incredible reflexes and anticipation on the return of serve, so often getting the ball in and deep off first serve. His ability to immediately take the upper hand on second serve makes him a physical and mental nightmare for a lot of players. His defensive positioning and anticipation are perhaps only ever bettered by Djokovic himself. His 2 handed crosscourt backhand has depth, bite and metronomic reliance – these skills allied to a very good in-match tennis brain makes him make a top player in this era and I believe would match up very well with any player in that list above. Like any top player of any era he has no major weaknesses in his game though his DTL forehand and recently his DTL backhand (a previous strength) can go missing at big moments – and he also has a huge differential between his A game serving and his B/C game serving (perhaps more so than most at the top level) – but again these are not particularly new or insightful observations and again don’t help me make or break the central case, merely they help in painting the landscape.
So what really underpins the central argument has to come down to the numbers, but instead of boiling them down to the bones, perhaps I can sway the argument with a gentle reduction to bring out the hints of flavour.
There are perhaps more elegant ways to portray the numbers, but to you the sports fan I think I can just as easily and effectively list the salient achievements and key points to articulate his legacy beyond what we know from above:
- 10 Slam finals reached – In all finals he has either faced Roger Federer (0-3) or Novak Djokovic (2-5) unarguably 2 of the greatest players to have ever played the game. This has him equal 12th in the open era with Boris Becker
- Equal 10th all-time on the number of semi-finals at 19 (with McEnroe, Edberg, Emerson and Crawford) – Equal 8th in the Open era
- Finalist at all 4 slams – Only 10th man to do so
- 10th on the Open era list of Masters series titles with 12 when reaching a Masters series final (18 times), he has only been beaten 6 times (5 by Djokovic and once by Nadal – exactly the same winning record against each opponent in reverse – beaten Djokovic 5 times and Nadal once)
- The ‘weight of a nation’ factor though difficult to judge, clearly had some kind of effect on him – his conversion rate of Masters finals (though clearly not as important as slams) of 12-6 vs his slam success rate of 2-8 suggests that he has not fulfilled his potential at the crucial points in those biggest of big matches and that some demons exist.
- All of this at a time when his main competitors are not just fighting for their legacy to be considered alongside the very best, they have fought and continue to fight to be considered the very best of the best. Perhaps the challenge of this era has spurred Murray onto a performance level that he otherwise would never have reached or perhaps being part of this era has deprived him from the wins that he otherwise would have got? Who knows?
Perhaps this is the appropriate moment to summarise the argument and come full circle back to the question that I think is rightly posed by many about Murray and his position in the ‘Big 4’. It is perhaps that inability to have done it enough times at the biggest of big moments that will ultimately define Murrays place in tennis history. Just 2 or 3 more conversions and there wouldn’t really be the need to debate – instead there is a pantheon of open era greats with 14 tennis gods inside and Murray, as has so often been the case in all of these hypothetical discussions, is leading the charge of those on the porch banging the door to get in. In other words there is not an open era ‘big 15’, there is instead the big 14 + 1, but 1 who perhaps still has some time left to get a few more slams and force through the door to take his place with everyone else or else could always remain that unique outlying enigma as the best of the rest…
So where does that leave Novak? Ok this piece is clearly about Murray, but when Novak’s career does come to an end it is likely that the majority of his achievements will have come at a time when Murray will be his primary challenger. And should he get close to, equal or surpass Roger Federer’s titles it might just be that Murray’s inability to have won more against Djokovic, might ironically actually be the most compelling argument against his own place at the very top of that list. That is to say the success of Andy Murray is arguably the most important factor in where Djokovic sits in terms of overall greatness.