ANDY Murray’s place in tennis history becomes more significant with every passing year.
Today, as if anybody in possession of a pulse hadn’t already realised, he plays his second successive Wimbledon final and his fourth grand slam final in a row (he missed the French Open due to injury). To get a measure on that level of consistency at the very top of the world game – and in the annals of the sport – you should know that Bjorn Borg never made it to four straight finals, neither did John McEnroe nor Jimmy Connors nor Ken Rosewall nor Pete Sampras. That feat even eluded Murray’s coach, Ivan Lendl.
In the open era, only Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andre Agassi, Rod Laver and Murray’s great rival of the age, Novak Djokovic, have done what the Scot is doing this afternoon. Of course, there is one legend missing from that list, an icon whose name once again reverberates around Wimbledon like a ghostly boomerang: Fred Perry.
Murray’s backside had hardly hit his seat in the interview room after his victory over Jerzy Janowicz on Friday night when Perry’s name came up; 1936 and all that. Even Djokovic referred to the historic backdrop yesterday. “Andy’s a local hero.” said the Serb, or the “freak of nature” as Boris Becker has called him. “He has a big chance to win Wimbledon after a long time for this nation.”
Not a long time, a looong time. None of this seems to bother Murray. Djokovic talked yesterday of romance and emotion, of the scenes in Belgrade when he went home after winning Wimbledon in 2011, of the 100,000 people who welcomed him and why it was the “most beautiful experience” of his life. “Wimbledon was a tournament that I wanted to win, that I dreamed of winning,” he gushed. “I visualised holding this trophy when I was only six years old. When I won it, it was definitely the highlight of my career and it still is. I went back and shared that trophy with the dearest ones in my life, all my family and friends, all the people who have participated in my life in some way.” His late coach and mentor, Jelena Gencic, among them. He has never forgotten the woman who did more than most to get him where he is today. It was powerful stuff.
Murray can do emotion as well as anybody – and better than most – but he hasn’t revealed that side of himself at Wimbledon this year. Maybe that’s for today. Maybe it will all come out in a gigantic flood as it did last year when he lost to Roger Federer. For now, he is staying in the present, living in the here and now and not getting “ahead of himself” by getting involved in a premature discussion about emulating Perry.
On Friday night, he was pressed about the prospect of Phantom Fred reappearing in the room with us.
“What would you ask him?” was the question. “I don’t know what I’d say to him,” he said. “I’ve never been asked that before.” “What do you think he would say to you?” “He’d probably say, ‘Why are you not wearing my kit?’”
Murray dealt with the question with deadpan humour and he was right. When you’re up against a beast like Djokovic then there is no point in dreaming about what might be and no merit in having imaginary conversations with dead champions. One spook at a time, Djokovic being the scariest man on the circuit right now.
It’s instructive that nobody here is making an issue about tiredness ahead of this final. Djokovic played the longest semi-final in Wimbledon history on Friday (four hours and 43 minutes against Juan Martin del Potro as opposed to Murray’s two-hour-and-52-minute-semi against Janowicz) but the thought of fatigue weakening his chances is not a factor given his supernatural powers of recovery, as evidenced time and again and nowhere better than when beating Murray in four hours in the semi-finals in Australia last year only to beat Nadal in almost six hours in the final. To be sure of defeating Djokovic you don’t so much need to win more points as drive a stake through his heart while doing it.
“I’m ready to go all the way,” he said. “I’m ready to go out on the court and give everything I have. There is always some doubt, but, on the other hand, there is self-belief. I’m trying to have those positive emotions stronger than the negative. It’s a mental fight, but it’s not the first time I’ve been in this position The 2011 experience [routing Nadal in the final here] and winning that trophy can maybe help me.”
Murray and Djokovic is fast developing into a rivalry of the era. They have met 18 times on all surfaces, the Serb ahead 11-7. Only once have they faced each other on grass, in the Olympic semi-final last summer. Murray took it 7-5, 7-5. They have contested three of the last four grand slam finals, two of the three going to five sets, Djokovic winning in Australia in 2011 and 2013 and Murray, of course, overcoming him in New York last year to finally take his seat at the top table reserved for champions.
They are a world apart in achievement – Djokovic’s six grand slams to Murray’s one – but so much unites them. They are the same age – Murray is only seven days older – and have similarly unrelenting styles on court; sensational returners of serve, tremendous fitness and athleticism and spirit and cool under pressure. They are the irresistible force and the immovable object of the tennis world at the moment and their stories go back 15 years, as Djokovic recalled yesterday.
“We know each other since we were 11 years old. It was maybe my first international tournament. That’s where he crushed me. I remember his curly hair. That’s all I remember. I remember I had a short visit on the tennis court. We are big rivals, but we definitely always chat and remember the fun days we had as juniors.”
Djokovic even told a story about visiting Murray’s backyard a few years ago. “I went to Dunblane,” he said. “I was passing by. I was on the highway and I sent him that photo, [Djokovic posed beside a Dunblane sign and texted it to Murray]. He said, ‘What are you doing there?’ I said, ‘I was paying you a visit but you’re not at home’. It was a surprise for my girlfriend because Scotland and Britain is full of beautiful medieval castles and we are in love with that. We love those fairytale, romantic, medieval sights. I got a very friendly welcome.”
Fairytale and romance. There will be plenty here on Centre Court for one of them. Scotland awaits and prays for its greatest living sportsman to deliver the title he wants so badly, while knowing that only a game from the Gods will be good enough. Sporting theatre at its most compelling.