His year began in familiar – and maybe over-familiar – fashion for surely Andy Murray was getting tired of losing the Australian Open to Novak Djokovic. Added to that there was the collapse in Melbourne suffered by his father-in-law which could have caused him to quit the tournament. Meanwhile, back at home, Murray’s wife Kim was expecting their first child. The Scot, then, had a lot of distractions at the Rod Laver Arena and, it seemed, no solution to the great problem of the tennis age – how to throw a spanner in the works of the ruthless Serbian winning-machine.
But anyone who thought that a fifth final defeat in January’s Oz summer was going to typify Murray’s 2016, what with fatherhood and his 29th birthday both upcoming, was about as wide of the mark as a Brexit pollster.
He would finish the year on top of the world.
There were tears as Murray said his goodbyes to Melbourne after equalling the Aussie from the immediate post-war era John Bromwich for the number of runners-up spots in the event and daughter Sophia duly arrived a week later. Thus, while Djokovic equalled the record of Melbourne titles – six – and started to eye up even more prizes and distinctions, no one was sure how becoming a dad would affect Murray, least of all himself.
Maybe Djokovic, though, had an inkling that it would inspire his rival. In his victory speech, wishing Murray well for the birth, he said: “I hope you will experience a feeling like no other before because that’s what happened to me.”
The next Slam was the French in which Djokovic was bidding for all manner of firsts: first Roland Garros triumph and first to hold all four titles concurrently since 1969, at the same time bringing him closer to the first calendar Slam there had been for 24 years. Oh, and Paris had fallen in love with him. It seemed like an unfair advantage for the player who had everything going for him already.
Clay, everyone agreed, simply wasn’t Murray’s surface. Hang on, he said, I played on little else for two years, training as a gangly kid in Barcelona. In Madrid he lost the final to Djokovic but exacted revenge in Rome. At the same time as he was getting the hang of dadhood, Murray was mastering the dirt. He raced to his first French final playing outrageous drop-shots and even more stupendous lobs where he would meet… well, I think you know.
Djokovic blew Murray away. Gave the man born only a week apart from him a set of a start then obliterated him. Murray’s very best form hadn’t been enough. Admittedly, he exploded a few times during the match, ranting at the Jetcam and local broadcasters. And while the Parisian crowd stayed indifferent to him, they continued their love affair with Djokovic. The second half of the tennis year seemed already written. Djokovic appeared unstoppable.
Then the Iceman cometh, or cometh back. Amélie Mauresmo had been a radical and brave appointment as coach but had quit saying she could “do no more” for Murray. Ivan Lendl returned, bringing with him the cold professionalism which had helped Murray win two Slam titles and the London Olympics, to say nothing of the dead-eyed stare which might make a player think twice about having an argument with an overhead wire camera, indeed could probably stop the device dead in its tracks.
Back with Lendl, back on grass, Murray won Queen’s again and returned to the scene of his greatest day. Admired in Melbourne and the recipient of the Gallic shrug in Paris, he was now properly loved at Wimbledon. If he’d matured as a player then so had the debenture-holders, who’d stopped tut-tutting about the way he dragged his feet and rarely smiled and – ridiculously – his mother Judy’s passionate support from the players’ box. They stopped thinking of tennis as a study in etiquette like it was dressage for humans and realised they were in the presence of the greatest British sportsman of his generation.
Murray’s heroics in helping win the Davis Cup had helped in this; not that playing for Britain had been a calculated move designed to endear. He loves being in a team, best illustrated by him following the boys to Belgrade as cheerleader after Lendl had ruled he should give the quarter-final a miss. Well, he had just won Wimbledon for a second time.
He was majestic in repeating his feat of 2013, one that had the sceptics thinking that would be his last major prize, such was Djokovic’s utter domination.
To be on the scene at the same time as Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal seemed unlucky; for Djokovic to be there too was a small tragedy. But Murray would overcome it, admittedly not by having to face his nemesis directly, Djokovic crashing out in the third round.
Such was the brilliance of Murray’s tennis, though, that you remembered what Djokovic told him in Paris, that more glory was inevitable: “I’m sure I’ll be seeing him win big trophies in the future.”
Murray couldn’t win at Flushing Meadows nor help Britain retain the Davis Cup but he slugged it out for four hours with Juan Martin del Potro in Rio to claim a second Olympic title, exemplifying the guts and graft in his game. He refused to countenance defeat, or the idea that he should be happy with a seat at the table, one off the top.
Murray made it to No 1 by winning 24 matches in a row, and five tournaments in a row, rounding off with a victory over Djokovic who no longer seems invincible. Before he was confirmed as Sports Personality of the Year for an unprecedented third time, Murray admitted that fatherhood had changed him, tennis no longer being the most important thing in his life.
Sophia doesn’t yet know that her daddy is a genius with a racquet but will learn this eventually. Djokovic seemed only too well aware of the impact her arrival would have on his tennis.