Allan Massie: Don’t expect Murray to dominate tennis
IT WAS characteristically honest of Andy Murray to have admitted that there have been times when he wondered if he would ever win one of the slam tournaments – and characteristically sensible of him to have kept those doubts to himself until his triumph in New York had dispelled them.
Most of us who admire him believed that he would indeed come through to win a major, but were also aware that this might not happen. Colin Montgomerie after all was for more than ten years the outstanding golfer this side of the Atlantic, and one with a great Ryder Cup record, but golf’s majors eluded him, though he came mighty close several times – just like Murray before he won in New York.
Now that he has made the breakthrough, Murray will be expected to win more slam titles, and probably will do so. It is rash, however, to speak, as some have done, of him dominating the game over the next three or four years. He may do so but it is very unlikely. There are two reasons for thinking this. The first, most obvious one, is that Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic are still active. Federer’s star may be dimming, but it would be stupid to suggest that he won’t win another major. Nadal has dodgy knees and will probably have to ration his appearances, especially on hard courts; nevertheless he will surely continue to dominate on clay and will remain a contender in all the slams. Djokovic is the same age as Murray and has already won five majors. They should have more close-fought encounters ahead of them. Then some younger stars will emerge, perhaps the Canadian of Montenegrin extraction, Milos Raonic. Murray beat him very comprehensively in New York, but he is quite some player.
Secondly, it is rare for any player to dominate the game. Federer did so for a few years (2003-07). He won 12 of his 17 majors in that period. That almost complete dominance did not last; he has won five in the five seasons following, three of them in finals against Murray. Incidentally, some who have denigrated Murray are also quick to proclaim that Federer is the greatest of all time. That surely makes Murray’s defeats in finals excusable.
Murray is always respectful of other players. Nevertheless, he was right to point out that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic all won their first slam final against players ranked well below them. In contrast, he played three finals against Federer and one against Djokovic before beating Djokovic on Monday. He beat Nadal to reach two of the finals he lost. Luck always plays a part. Andy Roddick might have won more than his single slam (2003 US Open) if he hadn’t come up against Federer in four finals. Federer’s other victims have included Mark Philippousis, Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt, Andre Agassi, Marcos Baghdatis, Felipe Gonzales and Robin Soderling. All very good, none except Agassi great – and he was a veteran, past his best, when Federer beat him in New York in 2005.
Restricting the list to players whose careers began in the Open era, only four have reached double figures in slam wins: Federer 17, Pete Sampras 14, Bjorn Borg 11, Rafa Nadal 11. Only Federer, Nadal and Agassi have won all four titles. Sampras never won the French. Borg never won the American or Australian.
The late 1970s and ’80s saw intense rivalries: Borg, Connor, McEnroe, Lendl, Wilander, Becker, Edberg. Only Borg won more than eight slams. If Murray ends up with as many as Becker and Edberg – six apiece – he will have done remarkably well. In every generation there are very fine players who never win a major title. Today David Ferrer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga are waiting at the head of the queue.
Murray is now incontestably the finest British player since Fred Perry. I have never understood how some people think him dull. Admittedly he is a master of defence, and one sometimes wishes he would be more attacking – in particular I wish he would come to the net more often, for he is a very fine volleyer. But I always find him fascinating to watch because he has so many subtle variations. Sometimes I even take my eye off the ball and just watch his feet because they move with the grace and precision of a dancer. If he has taken longer to reach the top than Djokovic, this is partly because his game is more complicated – and therefore can go wrong more easily – and partly perhaps because he has occasionally seemed to be affected by that characteristic Scottish self-doubt which underlies our “wha’s like us?” boasting. This should now have been laid to rest.
Some are calling for him to be given a knighthood. I hope he is spared that for the time being, first because I don’t think sportsmen should be knighted until they have retired. Second, and more importantly, because I suspect it would offend his modesty and embarrass him – and not only in the locker-room.
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