Christopher Clarey on how Andy Murray overcame the psychological downer of being 0-4 down in Grand Slam finals to win this year’s US Open - and why his coach Ivan Lendl knew just what to do to help him.
The Big Three is finally and undeniably the Big Four. After years of chasing the lead group of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray joined their golden-age club in earnest on a blustery Monday afternoon that turned into a chilly Monday night at the United States Open.
Murray won his first Grand Slam title by beating Djokovic, his boyhood and adulthood rival, at his own game: absorbing pace and tracking down should-be winners again and again; by appearing weary and down on his luck and then finding deep and decisive reserves of energy.
He did it by trumping his own perfectionist streak and the negativity that has long accompanied it: letting a few groans and longshoreman-worthy oaths escape his Scottish lips but never allowing himself to exit this monumental match emotionally or mentally on his way to a 7-6 (10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2 win.
Epic is an overused word in tennis, particularly in this era of extraordinary defence when rallies and finals routinely extend to tremendous lengths. But this 4-hour-54-minute mettle detector of a United States Open final was worthy of the term as was Murray’s own personal quest for possession of one of the trophies that continue to define tennis careers.
“He absolutely deserves it,” Djokovic says.
Murray was born and raised in Dunblane, Scotland, a small, quaint Scottish city of fewer than 10,000 inhabitants whose idyll was brutally interrupted in his childhood when a gunman massacred 16 children and a teacher in the gymnasium of Murray’s small primary school when Murray was 8.
But in the course of his barrier-breaking career, Murray has generated much more positive global associations for his small hometown.
He took an atypical path to make it. While other top British prospects stayed close to home, Murray felt that he needed to force himself out of his comfort zone to compete with the likes of Nadal, one of his measuring sticks as a junior. And so at 15, Murray based himself in Nadal’s home country: training in Barcelona, Spain, a centre of the modern men’s game.
He and Djokovic also crossed paths early, playing for the first time at age 11 in a junior tournament in France and later developing a friendship and playing doubles together on tour.
It cannot have been easy for Murray to watch Nadal, who now has 11 major titles, and Djokovic, who now has five, reach the summit first and often at Murray’s expense. But for all his talent, touch and speed, he lacked their poise and maturity in major matches; perhaps lacked their belief, as well.
He broke into the top 20 in 2006 at age 19; broke into the top 10 in 2008, the year he reached his first Grand Slam final. That came at the United States Open, and he lost to Federer, which was absolutely no surprise or disgrace but the start of a nasty pattern.
Murray lost the 2010 Australian Open final to Federer, the 2011 Australian Open final to Djokovic and this year’s Wimbledon final to Federer, too. That made him 0-4 in Grand Slam finals, just as his new coach, Ivan Lendl, was before he changed his luck in 1984.
But Murray, who had taken months to recover from previous big-match disappointment, snapped back quickly to win the gold medal at the same club against the same opponent at the Olympics in August. It was not the Grand Slam title he had been chasing since his youth but it certainly felt major.
“That’s why I came on board, to help Andy win,” Lendl says. “With the Olympics, he already had won a big one in my mind. It’s maybe more difficult to win than the others because you have one chance in four years and here you have four chances in one year.”
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Britain’s remarkable summer of sport has acquired an even deeper shade of gold now. After Bradley Wiggins won the country’s first Tour de France and after London staged a smash-hit Summer Olympics brimming with British champions, Murray has now become the first British man since Fred Perry in 1936 to win one of the Grand Slam tournaments.
Murray did it in his fifth final, just like Lendl, hired to help him clear the hurdle this year and who certainly was more delighted than he looked in the stands when it happened.
“I think that was almost a smile,” Murray joked in the victory ceremony.
“Smiles are overrated,” Lendl later joked right back.
So it goes between the two baseliners from different generations. “His sense of humour may be as sick as mine,” Lendl, 52, says.
Wherever their banter and relationship goes, there can be little doubt now that hiring Lendl, the Czech-born American who had never coached a professional player, was the right move.
“I believed from the beginning,” Lendl says. “Whether it helped him to believe because I believed, you’d have to ask Andy.”
The opportunity to ask Murray came soon after that.
“I think he definitely helped, that’s for sure,” Murray says. “It’s hard to say in terms of a percentage how much difference he will have made. There was a lot of people around the middle part of this year who didn’t think that it was working well, and I wasn’t learning from him, that it wasn’t just, you know, a good situation. But I have enjoyed working with him. I have listened to him a lot. He’s definitely, definitely helped. Having him in your corner for any player would be a big bonus.”
Lendl says he was approached by “close to 10” players in the past but it was Murray that brought him back into the professional game.
“I’m sure it gave a little boost to his ego tonight, after just sort of nine months with him,” Murray says, sparking laughter.
Lendl saw the talent and the opportunity and, above all, the work ethic.
“Hard work, he’s not afraid of it,” Lendl says. “I knew I was going to enjoy working with Andy. That’s why we met so many times, three or four times before we talked about it. So I can really understand what he’s looking for, and I can show him what I can try to help him with and how I would like to go about things and so on and so on. To make sure we are on the same page because if we weren’t going to be on the same page it would be painful for both of us.”
Nine months later, they are linked on the pages, Web or otherwise, of the history books as champions who stopped their Grand Slam losing streaks on the fifth attempt. Lendl went on to win eight major singles titles after snapping his streak at the 1984 French Open.
Murray may not build that kind of résumé in this competitive era. But there is no question that it is now his era, too, and even though most of his fellow Britons were sound asleep in a faraway time zone when he finally managed it, the news surely made for a cheery breakfast in places like London and Liverpool and above all Dunblane.
2012 ©The New York Times