Twelve months ago Andy Murray limped out of the O2 arena a beaten man, brushed aside by David Ferrer in the ATP Tour Finals, another game Brit who couldn’t quite cut it. Then came 2012 – at first a familiar tale. Beaten by Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals of the Australian Open, he became the first British man to make a Wimbledon singles final for 74 years only to lose again. He seemed fated to fail.
But Murray wasn’t destined always to fall at the final hurdle. A swift return to SW17 brought Olympic gold. And then the US Open and the Holy Grail – a five-set victory over Djokovic to become the first British winner of a Grand Slam final since 1936. How has he done it?
Following Murray on tour, in my role as BBC Sport’s tennis correspondent, has been entertaining, fascinating, sometimes frustrating yet totally rewarding for the past eight years. I wouldn’t say I’m a stalker, but I attend most of his tournaments, pose questions at his press conferences, study his practice sessions. (OK, that may make me a stalker.)
What you discover, at such close quarters, is an incredible work ethic, an eager, inquisitive mind and an obvious desire to improve, on and off the court. I remember him, as a 17-year-old, bending the ear of Sir Clive Woodward after the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Then, in 2006, as we watched the Champions League final together in a Hamburg burger bar, he didn’t stop asking about the role of the media. Now it’s Ivan Lendl, his coach, who has to find the answers.
This restless desire to improve, noticeable every year since his debut as a skinny teen in 2005, has fuelled interest in him. My editors never once considered holding me back from tournaments. We wanted to see him convert that talent, we wanted to wrap the Andy Murray Story. And, in that late-night finish at Flushing Meadows, I was able to finally report the event I feared we’d never see.
“I can’t believe he’s done it! I really can’t believe he’s done it!” I yelled into my microphone, high up in the Arthur Ashe Stadium as he dispatched Djokovic 7-6, 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2. It was an incredibly peculiar moment. Why peculiar? Because usually in life we get a sense of how we’ll feel at particular moments, but this was such a hoodoo being swept away. I felt joy and excitement – but most of all I felt disbelief.
The toughest challenge for Murray has been to beat three of the finest players ever to wield a racket: Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal. The toughest job for me has been dealing with the occasions when those opponents have been too good. Dampening expectations became my specialised subject.
I’ve forever been trying to put defeats in context and draw positives from tough losses. This wasn’t eternal optimism, it’s the reality of an elite individual sport. Murray had to suffer those defeats in order to discover what was required to taste victory. And now he’s done it. So maybe we can all relax and enjoy the rest of the journey, wherever it takes us.
Coverage of the The ATP World Tour Finals begins at 1:45pm on BBC2 and BBC Radio 5 Live, 12 noon on Sky Sports 1, 6pm on Sky Sports 2