Enough is Enough

Australian Open, Final

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

Novak Djokovic defeated Andy Murray in the last match of the 2013 Australian Open, historically the match a fellow must win in order to be proclaimed champion. Given fertile soil, the certainty quickly sprouted that Murray, now 1-5 in Major finals, is therefore a one-Slam wonder. Source: Scott Barbour/Getty Images AsiaPacThis has coiled about the sturdy belief that Roger Federer has grown too ancient to threaten for titles, and through the florid concern that Rafael Nadal’s knees have done him in. Neatly skirting this thicket of doubt and fear is the certainly that Djokovic will go on winning all the Majors in perpetuity.

The most notable take-down of Murray appeared in the New York Times, which leads with the rather provocative headline: Andy Murray Risks Becoming One-Hit Wonder. The author is unnamed, although the address suggests it is by John Leicester. (The prose itself suggests that Mr Leicester has never been taught to parse a sentence: “But he couldn’t reel in the Serb, who now has six major titles and the top of men’s tennis to himself with age slowly blunting Roger Federer’s abilities and Rafael Nadal’s future clouded by creaky knees.”

(Metaphorically, there’s a lot going on in this sentence, although I don’t mean to imply that the constituent parts are acting in concert. If they are, it is the same harmony of purpose achieved by buckshot pellets as they exit a shotgun barrel, which is to say the grievous wounding of anyone caught in the path. We begin with a fishing analogy (‘reel in’) and somehow arrive at a rare atmospheric condition (‘clouded by creaky knees’). It’s a shotgun blast to the mind. But I digress.)

History was against Murray, although in the scheme of history that probably mattered less than the fact that Djokovic was against him as well. History was embodied in the statistic that no man had ever backed up his maiden Major title by winning the next one. Indeed, Murray had already dealt history a body-blow by becoming the first man to reach his next Major final. This was already a laudable achievement. I’m not entirely sure why some are determined that he should feel ashamed by it.

The first time I heard the term ‘one-Slam wonder’ was when John McEnroe applied it dismissively to Pat Rafter before the Australian won his second US Open, although it may have been coined well before that. Lest you hadn’t realised, this is not an accolade players aspire towards. It is occasionally applied by champions who’ve demonstrated their mastery repeatedly, and often by fans who’ve never won anything. The term is entirely pejorative, imputing the sense of a fluke. After all, a player can get hot for a few weeks, and enjoy some lucky breaks. Dubbing Murray a one-Slam wonder thus groups him with, say, Gaston Gaudio, who aside from winning Roland Garros in 2004 never ventured past the fourth round at a Major in his entire career. That one-Slam wonderment is preferable to no-Slam oblivion should be self-evident, and to Andrei Medvedev and Marcello Rios it probably is. I fear this obvious point is lost too easily.

I doubt whether, in the final reckoning, Murray’s Major tally will approach double figures. I fear he has left his tilt at immortality too late, although I can’t deny that anything can happen. But it does beg the question of how many titles he will end up with (which is unanswerable) and, more pertinently, how many he needs before he stops being prematurely consigned to history’s dustbin. One more and his tally will equal Lleyton Hewitt’s. Two more and he joins Gustavo Kuerten, recently inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame. Three more and he pulls level with Jim Courier. How many is enough? Perhaps enough is enough.

Wherever Murray ends up, he’ll get there quicker if he stops running into Djokovic, although based on last night it’s hard to see how that is possible. The question of how many Majors Djokovic will finish with is easier to calculate. Given Murray’s alleged hopelessness, Federer’s blunted antiquity and Nadal’s deafening knee-fog, we can simply multiply the remaining years of the Serb’s career by four, and add to that figure the six he already holds. After all, no one else will ever win one.  Assuming Djokovic will remain active for another decade, we can therefore project an eventual haul of forty-six. That seems about right. He’ll become the first man to win thirteen Australian Opens in a row.

I’m not serious, but then the issue isn’t so serious that it merits a less frivolous response. I suspect both Djokovic and Murray have more important things on their minds than their ultimate places in tennis history, and to worry overly on their behalf is a kind of conceit. There’s such a thing as a sense of perspective.

Exceptional in this sense, as in so many others, are the British tabloids. Perspective is the one conceit they’re unwilling to countenance. Typically understated, the Daily Mail remarks that: ‘It took a player of extraordinary resilience to drag Djokovic to three hours and 40 minutes of tennis in Melbourne, and Murray is still the only player in the world who could have done it.’ Certainly Federer – ‘technically No.2’, according to the article – couldn’t have done it. There’s no mention of Stan Wawrinka, or of last year’s final, which by the three hour forty minute stage  was still locked at two-all in the first set.

The tone of hagiographic mania is maintained across most of the British rags, and a clear pattern emerges. Djokovic is continually elevated to godhood so that Murray’s capacity to stay with him might be recast as an audacious assault on heaven itself. The difficulties weren’t merely technical, but physical, too. Djokovic scourges opponents: ‘Playing Djokovic equates to physical, raw discomfort. He attacks your skin as much as your second serve.’ He commands the beasts and birds, or at any rate their feathers. Murray was certainly up against it, especially when we recall that the tournament itself had conspired against his victory.

Murray’s specific and heartfelt endorsement of Craig Tiley in his speech – ‘He gets it!’ – was strangely inconsistent with the Daily Mail’s revelation last week that the Scot was ‘furious’ with the tournament director, not to say the uncounted Daily Mail readers who insisted that Tiley personally had it in for the Brit. It was made abundantly clear that this was in keeping with a fatal deficiency in the grubbing Australian character, notwithstanding that Tiley is South African.

The truth, as usual, is more mundane. Djokovic is a superb tennis player, one of the finest who has ever lived. Murray is also an excellent tennis player. Indeed, he is almost as good as Djokovic. However, two nights earlier he played a four-hour, five-set semifinal against a man whom age hasn’t wearied quite as seriously as has been advertised. (Courier correctly remarked towards the end of last night’s final that ‘Roger Federer’s fingerprints are all over this match.’) One imagines Murray’s feet were already in reasonably bad shape. Then again, Djokovic might well have won anyway, eventually.

Djokovic was far from god-like through the first set and a bit. He looked completely mortal. However, those insisting Murray blew the match by not breaking at the start of the second set would do well to recall that his opponent had already blown a handful of break opportunities in the first. Why Djokovic came out so flat is a nice question. It could be that his semifinal victory was too easy, leaving him underprepared. Conversely it could be almost anything else. It really doesn’t matter. What matters is that he recovered and rediscovered how to win in time. Contrary to the narrative of Djokovic’s infallibility, he didn’t have to recover. It wasn’t fate. That’s what made it heroic.

It also doesn’t much matter whether Murray’s loss is treated as the latest shameful failure of a one-Slam wonder, or as the doomed endeavour of a mortal storming the firmament. What matters, ultimately, is what he does from here. He probably will win more Majors, although it’s not impossible that he won’t. Djokovic certainly will. Unless he doesn’t, in which case he’ll forever remain a six-Slam wonder.

My full match recap can be found here.


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