The Big Four

US Open, Final

(3) Murray d. (2) Djokovic, 7/6 7/5 2/6 3/6 6/2

In the end, and to my unalloyed surprise, the 2012 US Open did not break the record for the most recoveries from a two set deficit in Grand Slam history, despite the fact that the standing record had been equalled after only two rounds. It’s always a shame when records go begging. Opinion remains evenly divided as to whether Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray should bear all or even part of the blame for this failure, since they’d combined set it all up perfectly. Disappointingly, this was not put to either man in his press conference. One might reasonably argue that there had been weightier matters to discuss.

The weightiest matter, understandably, was that Murray was the first British man to win a Major title since 1936, and the first Scotsman to do so ever. English commentators, deranged with glee, have left us in no doubt which of these interpretations means more. It was a measure of the achievement’s gravity that the Sky Sports commentators, whose initially exuberant grins had hardened into rictuses as Djokovic fought back to level the match, hadn’t been prepared to let their guard down even when the Scot broke again for 5/2 in the final set. Murray was essentially home and hosed, but he’d seemed that way in the second set as well, until the steady refund of a double break had left him merely hosed. (From this we may infer that when it comes to hosing, location is vital, and that hosing is a sufficiently dangerous activity that it should only be conducted within the safety and privacy of one’s own house, by a certified practitioner, unless you’ve secured a spot in a dedicated facility. To be hosed anywhere else is to risk calamity.) Murray, through four previous Major finals, had compiled a water-tight case for never getting ones hopes up. He’d already permitted a laboriously-established two set lead to fissure and crumble in the teeth of a sustained pounding by the defending champion. His chums in the Sky booth had been inured to complacency.

In each of those first two sets the Scot had led early, only to yield up his advantage with some timid play, which thus (slightly) emboldened Djokovic, who nonetheless fell away uncharacteristically to concede each set. The first set tiebreaker was particularly tight. Murray finally took it on his sixth set point. It was very exciting – due partly to its length, not in spite of it – even though the tennis itself languished well shy of dashing. Djokovic came back strongly in the third and fourth sets, but again the term ‘strongly’ is relative. It certainly wasn’t the frightening level he brought to bear on Juan Martin del Potro, or the reckless endeavour of the fourth set in last year’s final.

Indeed, if I was compelled under duress to select a single word to describe the overall tenor of the match, the word I would choose is ‘cautious’. Thankfully I’m allowed to use other words. The tennis was by no means poor, but it certainly wasn’t great, and it certainly wasn’t as great as many onlookers were insisting at the time, a forgivable lapse in the collective sense of perspective. Generously, we might term it cagey, or tactical. This quality can be attributed to the wind, which wasn’t quite as savage as it had been in ruining Super Saturday, though it often wasn’t far off. Many of the rallies were exceptionally long – the longest concluded at 54 shots, but feasibly could have continued forever – and were for the most part comprised of three-quarter paced rally balls directed up the middle of the court. Given that these two men are among the most nimble and able defenders the sport has ever known, this meant that winners were very rare, and took an epoch to orchestrate, even when either player felt so inclined. However, it often seemed that the first player to really take the initiative in any given point would subsequently, not to say inevitably, lose it.

But if there was little reward for playing assertively, the long-term toll for these endlessly circumspect points was high. Both men were fated to lose their legs before this match was done with – Djokovic to cramping, and Murray to a rare but recurring virus colloquially known as ‘jelly’, as in, ‘my fucking legs feel like jelly right now!’ We now know the answer to the question of what happens when an immovable object meets an immovable object in a high wind with time to kill, although we could have guessed already that whatever the outcome it would take a near-eternity to eventuate, and that both men would nearly die in pursuing it. Murray was still limping badly as he accepted the trophy. Was I alone in hoping he’d give his leg one last clutch as he held the silverware aloft?

In any case, it wasn’t the greatest Major final in history, a statement that works on the mundane level of dramatic understatement, but also as a straight up refutation of Mark Petchey’s rapturous declaration that it was. Undeniably there was some astonishing tennis, and some of the points were the equal of anything played in the tournament. Petchey predictably declared one to be ‘among the greatest points of all time.’ It was that kind of day, a day for English accents delivering unhinged encomiums from on high. It was fun.

It was also the day upon which any reasonable debate about the Big Four has hopefully been laid to rest, insofar as the debate was ever worth having. For one thing, Murray has now moved ahead of Nadal in the rankings, to No.3. The most persuasive argument against Murray’s inclusion among the elite was always that he hadn’t won a Major. Now he has, to go with his Olympic gold medal. He outlasted the defending champion over five sets to do it, in exceedingly adverse conditions. No one can reasonably say he didn’t earn it. Indeed, unlike his fellows at the top, he had to do it by beating a multiple Major champion, whereas Federer, Nadal and Djokovic all claimed their maiden Slam by beating other non-champions (Philippoussis, Puerta and Tsonga respectively). The coincidence whereby his coach Ivan Lendl also won his first major from his fifth final is only coming to feel more meaningful, and therefore less coincidental. As Murray was hustled through his acceptance speech – he was lucky he had no thanks to give in Spanish, since CBS had somewhere else to be – he almost goaded Lendl into a proper smile. Meanwhile Sean Connery could barely contain himself. Bagpipes blared as Murray left the court. Upper lips, hitherto starched, quivered and split into grins.

One hopes this victory will inspire others to support him outside of Britain. I sometimes wonder why he isn’t more popular already, as far as I can reliably gauge such things. I realise some find his on-court antics off-putting. I personally know a few casual fans who cannot abide him for that very reason, and are surprised when I tell them that he miraculously transforms into a fairly affable human being upon leaving the court. But there’s also something about his tennis that people find difficult to grapple with. Simply writing Murray off as a defensive ‘pusher’ is misleading – for all that many seem eager to do so – although dubbing him an attacking shotmaker would be outright wrong. But, at his creative best, his play is a kind of aggression.

At its worst, it emphatically isn’t. Many times today he relinquished the advantage in the rally with a wilful perversity that rivalled Tomic’s, although unlike the young Australian Murray knew enough not to stick with it for long. The next point he’d maintain pressure until Djokovic buckled, and collapsed. It wasn’t merely a case of variety in execution, which can be lauded, but of variety in intent, which is mostly just confusing. It has always seemed to me that Murray pays a certain price for being sui generis in two fields (sports and entertainment) that demand firm categories, and insist that these be assiduously conformed to. At least broadly, people like to have some idea of what to expect. I suppose it’s a long way of saying Murray is an acquired taste. Hopefully more fans will now make the effort of acquiring it.

Some existing fans are blithely expecting Murray to push on and claim further Majors sooner rather than later, although he’ll have to wait at least until January. The Grand Slam season has now concluded, and it seems immensely fitting that the four Majors have been won by the top four players in the world. I have no idea when that last happened, but there’s a satisfying sense of symmetry to it.

The only blemish is that that record for two set recoveries at the US Open survives for another year. If only someone had told Murray as that fifth set got under way. He presumably would have tanked it, knowing that he could have been part of history.

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