Olympic Games, Gold Medal Match
(3) Murray d. (1) Federer, 6/2 6/1 6/4
As Andy Murray’s fifth and final ace punched vigorously into Centre Court’s temporarily hideous back hoarding, and the fact that he’d now won the Olympic gold medal commenced the slow process of sinking all the way in, he provided a preview of how he’ll react when he one day wins a Slam. It turns out Murray is not the type to collapse on his back, or dissolve into wet-cheeked rapture, as Juan Martin del Potro had a short time earlier, or as Roger Federer does all the time. He dropped his racquet, and dropped to his haunches, a study in disbelief, then jogged to the net, where the words exchanged with his defeated opponent finally inspired a small grin. As a comparison to winning a major, this is about all today’s victory could tell us. If only that was enough. It is an Olympic gold medal. Of course it’s enough.
Really, the question of whether Olympic gold might usefully be compared to a Grand Slam trophy was a pretty fatuous one to begin with, and hardly grew less so as knowing pundits persisted in repeating it as the event wore on. John McEnroe believes the Olympics should award the same points as a major. Others feel it should reward none. I think McEnroe is overstating it, but mostly I don’t care. The pointlessness of these musings reached its highest and lowest point when NBC put the question to Murray immediately following his majestic victory: ‘How does this compare to winning a Grand Slam?’ It wasn’t the very first question he was asked, but it was near enough to make at least one viewer squirm. Murray neatly sidestepped the issue by making the obvious point that he has no way of knowing how winning a major feels.
But he does know how winning a gold medal feels, and, even better, he knows how it feels to win one on Wimbledon’s Centre Court before thousands of hysterical compatriots, having thrashed the world No.1 who you’d painfully lost to just four weeks before. Indeed, he is now the world’s leading authority on this subject, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. He made it perfectly clear it felt fantastic. Asked later by Sue Barker where it rates in the scheme of his victories, Murray replied without hesitation that it was number one, the biggest win of his life. Some have already pencilled him in as favourite for the US Open. They just can’t help themselves.
Despite all Roger Federer’s talk of sticking around until the Rio Olympics in 2016, he will probably never quite know how winning a gold medal feels, although he must have imagined it any number of times, and Murray will probably permit him a fondle if he asks nicely. Olympic gold will no doubt always remain a gap in the sport’s fattest resume, and again it’s worth pointing out that this is a gap that even 17 majors cannot fill. Federer never craved an Olympic gold because it’s like a major. He craved one because it isn’t. It’s an Olympic gold medal, and, amazingly, he believes it’s possible for a high-profile global sport to have more than one type of accolade, and that they don’t have to be ranked against each other.
Murray’s performance today was particularly gratifying for long-time followers of the sport, and of Murray in particular. There’s a piquant satisfaction when a player starts playing the way you always believed he should, and almost immediately meets with success. You can almost delude yourself that you had something to do with it. Murray had been assertive in this semifinal against Novak Djokovic, and he sustained that today. Some have suggested that the key moment came in the third game of the second set, at 2/0 in Murray’s favour, when Federer had six break points, but ultimately converted none. I’m not sure that’s true. Murray was already up a break, and it is unlikely that being broken back at that moment would have retarded his considerable momentum more than temporarily. He’d already blasted open the floodgates about 45 minutes earlier, and halting the flood would have taken far more effort, enterprise and engineering skill than even Federer could give today. He didn’t break, and the flood continued to gush through.
The key moment really came in the opening game of the match, when Murray fell to 15-40 on serve. For the briefest of moments a different match seemed likely. But Federer, tense, played both break points gingerly, with a delicate and unnecessary caution. Murray had commenced nervously, but Federer was too nervous to see it, and upon holding the Scot’s nerves were steeled. From 2/2 in the first set he grew terribly calm and narrowly focussed, perfectly combining pace, depth and a bold determination to play for the lines. Federer wouldn’t hold serve again for an hour, and quite often he would be broken after holding game points. Even with early breaks in hand, Murray was relentless, and tireless.
Federer, it must be said, wasn’t tireless. The extent to which Friday’s savage semifinal with del Potro inhibited the world No.1’s performance has seen sufficient debate. It is hard to see how it could not have affected him, although when interviewed afterwards he was keen to suggest that his fatigue was more mental than physical, and that he’d mainly made too many bad decisions. That’s certainly how it seemed from where I was sitting. Federer was too slow in realising that Murray wasn’t going to start missing, too willing to cede control of baseline exchanges, and too careful when he needed to be reckless, especially on break points and game points. If he was tired, he needed to be more aggressive. But then again, one wonders if such reflections are a waste of time, since, above all, Federer was simply outplayed. He said that, too, with typical grace, and you could tell he really believed it. The last set looks superficially the closest, if we simply go by the score, but it wasn’t. Federer won one point on Murray’s serve, and that came in the final game. Indeed, although he had nine break points throughout the entire match, and converted none, they all came in only three different service games. Meanwhile Federer won just seven games, all on his own serve, and he was compelled to fight for most of those.
Afterwards Federer made precisely the right noises about his satisfaction at winning the silver, but I don’t think he was quite at the stage where such noises ring entirely true, even or especially to himself. But they will, in time. Del Potro had earlier proved amply and beautifully that there is no such thing as an Olympic medal to feel embarrassed by. Two days ago the Argentine repeatedly came within two points of playing off for a gold or silver, yet his elation at winning bronze over Djokovic today was so unfettered and genuine that it induced one’s heart to sing. Without question the best moments from these Games have been provided by those athletes utterly and delightedly overcome at achieving a minor placing. The worst moments have been provided by those who’ve failed to reign in their shame at missing gold. Australia’s continuing run of silver medals has provided me with ample opportunities to witness both. It also means I’m justified in extending an offer of honorary citizenship to Federer. He’ll fit right in. Then again, I doubt the Swiss will give him up without a struggle, since this silver is their second medal of the games. Meanwhile del Potro’s medal was Argentina’s first. These achievements mean a lot.
Murray’s achievement of course means even more, for all that his gold medal is part of a rapidly mounting tally for the host nation. If Federer’s stalled narrative was of the perfect summer achieving perfect fulfilment, Murray’s was of redemption for the disasters of the past. He came back and won Wimbledon just for weeks after losing it, against the same opponent. He could stand in the same spot where he’d fallen to lonely pieces twenty-eight days earlier, and this time smile with the whole of Britain, and know that he’d won. It may not be a major, but it never had to be. It is the biggest win of his life.