A key narrative in the wake of Andy Murray’s defiant performance in losing to a Roger Federer seemingly caught in the depths of an acid flashback to 2007 – a time when none dared question the fluid dominance of the tennis’ greatest ever player – was that Murray had finally answered his critics, demonstrating the heart and ability to stand proudly at the sport’s top table. For anyone who has actually been paying attention during the last four years, those critic-responses will be instantly recognisable as the exact same answers Murray has been giving with varying degrees of certainty during a period where he has confirmed his status as the fourth-best player in the world.
But that’s the problem here; Murray’s critics aren’t the sorts of people who really pay all that much attention to boring old tennis. Their chief desire when engaging with the sport is to spend two weeks waving miniature plastic Union Flags for two weeks in the early part of what we in the UK laughably refer to as ‘summer’. If your entire understanding of a sport’s world encapsulates only a single tournament, and your brave standard-bearer doesn’t win the only tournament in the world – well, he must be pretty shoddy bearer, no? It’s no coincidence that the provenance of this narrow-view ignorance overlaps so neatly with the arch-wits who find it so hilarious to belt out ‘ironic’ shouts of encouragement for Tim Henman at Murray’s Centre Court matches – invoking the spirit of the last poor soul who was forced to shoulder the burden of uncomprehending expectation, as these bellowers see only the similarities in the results of failing efforts to conquer their narrow world, and not the processes behind them.
To recap what Murray has already made clear to those who watch more than six tennis matches a year: he is a very gifted player who finds his path to the top blocked by a three-faced roadblock of insane, epochal talent. Roger Federer can no longer be argued against as the greatest player of all time – if his tally of silverware wasn’t enough to convince you, then the merest glance at his nonchalant control of every aspect of the game should do the job. Federer plays like a laser-guided tiger in ballet pumps; except better, because he has opposable thumbs. Rafael Nadal is his eternal nemesis, matching Federer’s achievements and spurring him on, even in the twilight of the Swiss’ career, and therefore must also be considered one the game’s finest ever exponents. Then to complete the obstacle course, Novak Djokovic has raised his game so thoroughly that is now experiencing his own mini-era of consistently dominating two of tennis’ pantheon. That Murray finds it within himself to even keep pace with these racquet-wilding behemoths rather than hiding in a cellar and attempting to learn the language of the woodlice is towering credit to the man’s competitive fire and self-belief.
So even if Murray is simply reiterating his responses of previous years, is he at least changing the way he pronounces the words? One new thing we can take from the Wimbledon final was the striking lack of unforced errors and overly forced introspective tantrums on display from the Scot, two intertwined strands of negativity that have risen to plague Murray in the more egregious failures of his past career. There is a general sense that his recent appointment of Ivan Lendl (Czech by birth, but a citizen of the nation of Stoicism by sheer weight of personality) has been behind this new maturity, but the exact change is a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Has Lendl coached the jitters out of Murray’s arm, allowing him to play without needing to berate himself at every turn? Or has the old master transferred some of that granite-edged forbearance into Murray’s psyche, burying those errors under a healthy seam of calm sediment? Either way, that Murray managed to avoid tumbling into his familiar self-destructive vortex while banging his head against an impenetrable wall of Swiss brilliance during that Wimbledon final is an encouraging sign for the future.
For now though, Murray’s game is trapped in the status quo, stranded underneath a triple-glazed glass ceiling. Perhaps one day he’ll break through that barrier, but if that day ever arrives, I doubt that Murray will have substantially changed the script over who he is. Murray’s answers will remain the same, for those of us hoping he succeeds, we just have to trust that the Federer, Nadal or Djokovic eventually might ask him a different question.