At the start of 2012, Britain had a top five tennis player and multiple Grand Slam finalist, but in 2013 we will talk about Andy Murray: Olympic gold medallist and defender of the US Open title. Quite a turnaround considering the long-held fears of many that, despite being an excellent player, he would always come up short against the Big Three – Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Few would have predicted the turnaround in his fortunes during the first few months of the year. The appointment of new coach and eight-time Grand Slam winner Ivan Lendl was soon overshadowed by a quarter-final defeat to Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open, followed by a hard-fought loss to Federer in the Dubai Open decider. A chance of a trophy in Miami also went begging and once again tennis fans braced themselves for another year of “almosts”.
An attack of back spasms during the French Slam, leading to defeat at the hands of danger man David Ferrer in the quarters, once again battering the belief of British fans – and a first-round loss to world number 65 Nicholas Mahut at Queens Club left us holding our heads in our hands.
But a look back on the first six months of disappointments hardly prefigures the career-defining year Andy Murray went on to enjoy. Indeed, following his underwhelming start to the grass court season, the annual murmurings about a possible home-grown Wimbledon champion lacked their previous conviction.
At SW19, Murray was drawn in the same half of the competition as two-time champion Rafael Nadal – a man who had already beaten him three times at the All England Tennis Club. A tough first three rounds saw Nadal dispatch Davydenko, Karlovic and Baghdatis, but the game-changing action took place on another court as plucky Czech Lucas Rosol took out the Spaniard in a five-set thriller. Suddenly Murray was the top seed in the bottom half of the draw, and expected to reach the final for the first time. His eventual showdown with Roger Federer followed hard-fought victories over Cilic, Ferrer and Tsonga, but on 8 July the pair walked out onto Centre Court with Murray bidding to become the first British player in 76 years to get his hands on the coveted Wimbledon trophy.
Alas, it wasn’t to be as Federer pulled some majestic tennis out of the bag to take the Championship in four sets. But a beaten Murray won himself a legion of new fans with his teary speech to his family and supporters. For the first time, home fans saw a visible sign of the Scotsman’s desire to win – and it unlocked their passionate support for him when he next took to Wimbledon’s green grounds to do battle for Olympic glory.
At first, Murray’s assault on the London 2012 singles and mixed-doubles tournaments had the potential to go unnoticed as Team GB athletes excelled across the board. But his quiet dismissal of Wawrinka, Nieminen, Baghdatis and Almagro set up a semi-final clash with world number one Novak Djokovic – a test he overcame with a remarkable straight-sets victory.
Once again, Murray faced Federer on Centre Court – but this time the Scotsman was on the offensive from the start, stifling Federer’s stylish play and preventing him from ever getting a grip on the match. After three gritty sets – and desperate attempts from British fans to quell their building excitement – Murray prevailed to add to his nation’s swelling gold medal haul. This time around there were no tears, but it didn’t take waterworks to demonstrate how much the first major victory of his career meant to him. Add to his haul a silver medal in the mixed doubles with partner Laura Robson and Murray had become something of a national hero.
Celebrations were scant in the Scotsman’s camp, as a hectic tournament schedule meant he missed the nationwide merriment that followed the Games to begin his hard court season across the pond. Disappointing runs in Toronto and Cincinnati were mere blips on the world number three’s radar, as he turned up at Flushing Meadows in September to stake his claim for the US Open.
Swift victories in the first two rounds were soon forgotten as he fought tooth and nail to overcome Spaniard Feliciano Lopez, before defeating Milos Raonic, Marin Cilic and Tomas Berdych en route to a second consecutive Grand Slam final – this time against top seed and long-time rival Novak Djokovic.
British viewers ready to brave the late-night start were put through the ringer as Murray swiftly built a two-set lead only to allow a belligerent Djokovic back into the game for a deciding fifth set.
But instead of the choking act witnessed in the Wimbledon final, the Scotsman demonstrated his new-found resolve – a result of the enormous success he had enjoyed over the preceding few months. At four hours and 54 minutes, the match tied the US Open record for the longest men’s singles match – but for British fans, the first Grand Slam victory for a male player in 76 years was chief in our thoughts as we ignored our 3am yawns to celebrate back home.
And so we came to the end-of-year ATP World Tour Finals held at London’s O2 arena over the past week. Could Andy Murray prevail against the seven top seeds to end the year with another trophy in his collection? That question was answered yesterday when he went down fighting to Roger Federer in a tough three-set battle for a spot in the final. As the top two players in the world, it seems fitting that the Swiss should face Djokovic in tonight’s season-ending showdown (8pm, BBC3).
But let’s save the last word for Murray – arguably 2012’s most improved player. Any lingering questions of his confidence or resolve were firmly silenced first by his Olympic win and then his US Open victory. For years we have talked of the Big Three, but with Nadal still nursing an injury and yet to confirm his return to the sport, we have seen a notable shift in the tennis hierarchy. Nowadays, it’s not just hopeful British fans who see Andy Murray as a serious contender – players, pundits and fans worldwide acknowledge the threat of the dogged Scotsman and his uncanny ability to keep the ball in play. 2013 is an exciting prospect for Murray – but will it be the year he finally lifts the Wimbledon trophy?
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