No matter that he lost to Roger Federer yesterday, his performance against the seven-times champion proved that he truly belongs at the latter stages of the major championships and he is inching ever closer to the trophy. Even Federer knows that. The man Federer had just beaten 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 was not the tentative, nerve-shackled Scot he had squashed in the Australian Open final in 2010 and he was certainly a far more experienced, much stronger and more complete player than the young rookie he sent packing in the US Open final in 2008. Murray is ready to win a grand slam title; that is blindingly obvious.
“I played better this time in the final and that’s the main thing,” was Murray’s simple assessment. “It was my first time in a Wimbledon final. I’d never been there before. I played three semis beforehand. So I’m still improving, still playing better tennis, trying to improve, which is all I can do.”
It may take a while for Murray to recover from yesterday’s loss – the tearful speech at the presentation ceremony showed just how much the moment meant to him – and his only promise before he left the All England Club was that he “won’t be on the courts next week, that’s for sure”. He will only resume work when his “mind is right”. But after a few days to let his bruised and tired body recover and a few quiet evenings to mull over the events of the past two weeks, he will be back with his shoulder to the grindstone.
Ivan Lendl, his coach, is not a man to fret over the past and what might have been. As soon as Murray lost that epic, five hour semi-final to Novak Djokovic in Melbourne at the start of the year, Lendl began planning their French Open campaign. And it was that matter-of-fact and positive attitude that gave Murray no opportunity to dwell on his missed opportunities and endure the annual slump that had dragged him down after his two Australian Open final defeats in previous years.
Lendl’s work will begin now to lift the Scot and prepare him for the Olympic Games in three weeks’ time and the US Open at the end of the summer. In his three previous major finals, Murray had not played well and, restricted by stage-fright, personal expectation or lack of a clear game plan, he had never managed to produce anything like his best.
Indeed, he had failed to win a single set. But this time, the first set went to Scotland as it was Murray who coped better with the early nerves. It was Murray who was moving freely, hitting cleanly and grabbing his chances. And all the while, he kept his concentration in lock-down. That will have pleased Lendl immensely – almost as much as the moment when his charge drilled the ball straight at Federer, leaving the Swiss no option but to duck to get out of the way. Murray won the point. That is just the way Lendl likes it.
A year ago, Murray was a set to the good against Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals. With an open court, all he had to do was plant his forehand within the neatly painted white lines and two break points would be his. And he missed. From being the aggressor, the crowd favourite and the man with history on his side, he deflated in a matter of minutes. Nadal ran away with the second set and, eventually, the match. Another year had passed and again he had come away disappointed.
Twelve months on and Murray is a different player, a different man.
The loss of four break points – two to go 3-2 up and two to go 5-4 up – could, or would in the past, have rattled him, made him doubt his game plan, second guess himself. And in the pre-Lendl days, he would have berated himself and his entourage and, consequently, lost focus.
Not now; not with old Stone Face perched at the side of the court watching every point of every game without so much as a twitch of an eyebrow. The two men are in this together and the unwritten rule seems to be: “If I can endure this in silence, Andy, so can you.”
Time and again in his journey through the draw, Murray has shown grit and resilience. Against Federer, he was up against the greatest player the game has known and yet still he held firm in his belief that he could win. Only when the rain held up proceedings, giving the Scot a 40 minute break to ponder the loss of the second set and allowing the Swiss the chance to plot his line of attack under the roof, only then did Federer start to pull rank and play like a true legend.
Yes, there had been four break point opportunities in the second set and, yes, Murray had failed to take one of them. Then again, when Federer was throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the Scot in a 20-minute game of ten deuces and six break points in the third set, no one accused Federer of wasting the first five of those break points before he finally got his reward. The level of play the two men had reached was stunning and, for Murray, is can only be encouraging.
Just because Rafael Nadal had lost in the second round, a distant memory from the first week of the tournament, it did not mean that Wimbledon belonged to Murray, not when Federer was chasing a record-equalling seventh title and with it, the No.1 ranking. Federer on a mission in a final is a terrifying sight and yet Murray stuck with him three hours and 24 minutes.
“Was it my best chance to win?” Murray asked. “I don’t know. It was first time being in a final. You know, it was good to get there. I lost to a guy that’s now won this tournament seven times and is No 1 in the world. We’re talking about one of the greatest athletes of all time here. Got to put it in context a little bit.”
When he does finally return to the practice courts, Murray ought to have a new spring in his step. The performance he turned in yesterday was a couple of points here and there away from winning a grand slam title. And now he has Olympic gold to aim for and another shot a major trophy at the US Open.
In New York, the internal pressure will be just as great but he will be left to go about his business in peace and quiet (or what passes for it in the madness of the Big Apple). He will not be the hometown hero and he will not be on the nightly news or in every newspaper – he will be Andy Murray, world No.4 and champion in waiting.
“I think he’s giving himself so many looks at big titles,” Federer said. “I really do believe deep down in me he will win grand slams, not just one. Today, I’m sure he got another step closer to a grand slam title for him.”
And Federer ought to know all about how to win a grand slam – he had just won his 17th.