Of course Andy Murray is by a long way the finest British tennis player since Fred Perry back in the 1930s. Comparing him with Perry is as fascinating, but inevitably inconclusive, as most comparisons of players or teams of different eras. Circumstances change. It’s generally accepted that modern sportsmen are fitter and pay more attention to things like nutrition than those of even 20 years ago.
Fair enough, but one might point out that in Fred Perry’s day, and for a long time afterwards, players were not permitted to sit down for a minute at change of ends. No chairs were provided, and they simply walked round the net and immediately started again.
Since his second Wimbledon victory, in a match notable for his calm assurance as well as skill, there have been people saying Murray is our greatest living sportsman. This is an entirely subjective opinion. There’s no sensible way you can compare his remarkable achievement with the remarkable Olympic records of Steve Redgrave or Chris Hoy; and I’m quite sure that Murray himself would never dream of entering such an argument.
Likewise it is futile attempting a comparison between the stars of an individual sport and those of a team sport. The demands are different. Is Roger Federer “better” than Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi? Absurd question.
Tennis is fascinating because it is man against man, or woman against woman, and there is perhaps no sport in which luck plays a smaller part in a match. (It plays some part in a tournament, which is why we may speak of “the luck of the draw”). But once two players are on court luck’s role is minor. There is the occasional net-cord, but that’s about it. Even the luck, good or bad, of a favourable or unfavourable line-call has been eliminated at the top level of the game by the use of Hawk-Eye. Tennis is a pure test of skill and mental strength.
It provides a purer test of these things than either golf or cricket. There is inevitably a big element of luck in a round of golf. It’s part of the game. Two players may hit their drive into the same patch of rough,only a couple of yards apart, and one may have a good lie, the other find his ball in a gorse bush. In cricket a batsman’s brilliant century may have been made possible by a dropped catch. That’s luck, good for the batsman, bad for the bowler and his team.
Of course luck comes in different forms. Some may say that Andy Murray has been unlucky to be playing in the same generation as Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Certainly we can think he would have won more than the three Slam titles he has so far if he hadn’t coincided with these three great champions. Again I suspect he mightn’t agree. I suspect he would reply to anyone offering him such sympathy that he has become a better player simply because he has encountered such stiff opposition. If Federer had retired in his 20s, Nadal’s injuries had come earlier, Djokovic had chosen to be a ski champion rather than a tennis player (as he might have done), then Murray might well have ten or a dozen Slam titles to his name. On the other hand he might have been no better at 29 than he was at 24.
For this surely is the most impressive thing about him; that he has worked so hard and improved so much in the second half of his career to date. As a young man he was a very clever player with a tremendous defence, but in the last few years his service has improved out of recognition, he hits forehand winners with a power he didn’t have a few years ago, his net play is more deft and assured, and he plays drop-shots and lobs with a finer dexterity and greater audacity.
The remarkable thing about his second Wimbledon title was that from the first game even his most nervous supporters, among whom I count myself, never had any reason to doubt that he would win. Milos Raonic played an exceptionally good match. His tactics were excellent and I have never seen him play better. But he never got a sniff of victory. Though one of the best servers in the game, he was blown away in both tie-breaks – though the tie-break format favours the big server.
We don’t need to bother comparing Murray with the champions of other sports. It’s enough, better indeed, simply to judge him as a tennis player. He’s by a long way the best British player we have ever seen, and he is still improving. He will surely win more Slam titles. For what mere opinion is worth, I reckon that, now that Federer is in inevitable decline, Murray is the best grass-court player in the world, and the way he has played at Queen’s and Wimbledon this summer, I think he would have beaten Djokovic last Sunday if his great rival hadn’t already been eliminated from the tournament.