“We know what we are, but know not what may be.”
−Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5
After Novak Djokovic rebounded from a first-set loss to thrash Andy Murray in the French Open final, he was showered with accolades. “Djokovic is almost inhuman,” Pat Cash wrote in The Times (UK). “He’s mentally so tough. I can’t see anybody getting through him at Wimbledon. Is Djokovic the perfect player? Well, in this era of the slow courts, he’s about as close as you can get.”
By capturing the only major title that had eluded him in 11 previous tries, Djokovic achieved a rare career Grand Slam. The Roland Garros tour de force also gave him four straight majors — the first man to achieve that since Australian legend Rod Laver in 1969. With 12 majors, Djokovic thrust himself into the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) conversation.
Could the Serb superstar win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open to win a calendar-year Grand Slam, after barely missing it by one loss — the French final — in 2015? Could he overtake the declining Rafael Nadal and the retired Pete Sampras with 14 career majors, or even surpass all-time leader Roger Federer at 17?
Nothing seemed impossible for Djokovic then. After playing third fiddle to Federer and Nadal for most of the past decade, Djokovic looked unstoppable at barely 29. He had seized five of the last six majors, the last four ATP Finals, and 10 of the last 14 Masters titles.
Djokovic’s popularity was also soaring. Partisan spectators chanted “Nole! Nole! Nole!” when he started the French final and during changeovers. After he won championship point, he returned the love by drawing a heart on the red clay and lying down on his back in the middle of it. Then the extroverted Djokovic joined the ball girls, and they all rhythmically raised their arms to all four sides of Stade Roland Garros.
Djokovic’s massive domination over the other elite players was also evidenced by his 16,950 ATP World Tour rankings points, nearly double that of No. 2 Andy Murray (8,915) and 10,000 better than No. 3 Federer (6,425).
“The last time we’d had such a clear-cut No. 1 was Roger Federer,” recalled Mary Carillo, the NBC and Tennis Channel analyst, on ESPN.com. “Let’s review. Djokovic has beaten Rafa seven times in a row. He’s won against Federer the last four times they’ve met at majors — and he’s beaten Murray in the last five Grand Slam matches they’ve contested. He’s long been lapping the field. He has the Serena Slam. Why not suppose he can do what Serena came so close to pulling off last year?”
Why not, indeed. But the parallel with Serena Williams proved a double-edged sword. Just as the pressure eventually overwhelmed Serena who choked in the 2015 U.S. Open semifinals and faltered in the 2016 Australian Open final, The Djoker crashed and burned after five fabulous, but stressful, months this year.
The first Djokovic disaster rocked Wimbledon. Looking distracted and playing listlessly, he was stunned by big-serving, No. 41-ranked Sam Querrey in the third round. “It’s been a very successful year so far, but a long, exhausting one, in every sense of the word,” Djokovic confided. “I need some rest…. Coming into Wimbledon, I knew that mentally it would not be easy to re-motivate myself…. My best wasn’t enough this year.”
Besides burnout, Djokovic was hampered by a sore shoulder. But there was no rest for the weary, or injured. During the event-packed summer, the Rio Olympics came only four weeks later, and Djokovic’s woes worsened with an unlucky draw. In perhaps his last best chance to win a gold medal, Djokovic faced a resurgent Juan Martin del Potro, who upset him at the 2012 London Games, in a brutal first-rounder. Mindlessly hitting way too many shots to the Argentine’s lethal forehand, Djokovic succumbed 7-6, 7-6. As he walked off the court, he wept in despair. Afterward he admitted, “No doubt it’s one of the toughest losses in my life, in my career.”
Fate was kinder to Djokovic at the U.S. Open. Thanks mostly to a walkover, two match retirements by opponents, and a sometimes uncompetitive Gael Monfils in the semifinals, he reached the final, despite elbow, wrist, and shoulder problems.
Djokovic dispelled whispers about marital problems and waxed philosophical about his changing priorities. “Yes — everything is fine. Like all of you, I have private issues, and things that are more challenges than issues, things that we… have to overcome in order to evolve as human beings. That was the period for me [at Wimbledon], it… was resolved — and life goes on…. Trophies, fame, money, influence — all these kind of things I don’t believe they are the best values that we all should share. I think happiness is intrinsic, belonging to something and really being fulfilled doing something.”
Djokovic’s slump continued into the autumn. Appearing jaded, he was upset in straight sets by No. 19 Roberto Bautista Agut at the Shanghai Rolex Masters and by No. 10 Marin Cilic at the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris. Cilic had lost all 14 of his previous matches against Djokovic, while Bautista Agut had lost all five of his to the Serb. How fast and how far had Djokovic fallen. No one had seen this coming back in June — except perhaps Djokovic himself.
While the meditative Djokovic fizzled, the opportunistic Murray sizzled. After a solid opening half of the 2016 season, in which he reached the Australian, French and Madrid finals and won Rome, the 29-year-old Scot pressed his foot hard on the accelerator. He captured his second Wimbledon crown and a record second Olympic singles gold medal. Murray faltered briefly, losing to Kei Nishikori at the U.S. Open and getting upset by del Potro in a Davis Cup rubber. Then he really took off. Tournaments in Beijing, Shanghai, Vienna, and Paris fell like dominos from the weight of his increasingly aggressive shots.
Luckily, Murray didn’t face a top-10 player on the court en route to those four titles. (No. 5 Milos Raonic withdrew from the Paris semis due to injury.) Djokovic and U.S. Open champ Stan Wawrinka competed only at Shanghai and Paris, and neither reached either final. Nadal lost early at Beijing and Shanghai and decided to end his disappointing season. And Federer, plagued by lingering knee pain, called it quits for 2016 after a five-set Wimbledon semifinal loss to Raonic.
The lack of elite competition didn’t matter to Murray or the ranking computer. On November 7, he became the oldest man to become No. 1 since 30-year-old John Newcombe in 1974.
Strange and unpredictable sport
“No one would have expected what I have done [over] the last few months,” confided Murray about deposing Djokovic, who held the top spot for 122 straight weeks and now surprisingly trailed Murray by 405 ranking points. “After I lost to Novak in the French Open final, I was so far behind in terms of points. I knew the amount of matches it would take me to win, and I never expected to do what I have done. But things can turn around quick in tennis, and it’s a strange sport.” Strange, indeed.
And unpredictable, just like politics, as we all learned from the seismic earthquakes of Brexit and Trump.
Why did Murray, who learned the game so early and did so many right things along the way, blossom so late? What and who shaped his complicated character? What can we expect from the mature Murray now?
His mother Judy, a highly regarded coach, started teaching Andy and his older brother Jamie not long after they could walk. Jamie gained the No. 1 doubles ranking in April, making them the most successful brothers in pro tennis since John and Patrick McEnroe. “There haven’t been many tennis players from Scotland over the years, and a lot of what we have done is big credit to our parents,” Murray said, including his supportive father William. “Our mum was a tennis coach. She helped us learn the game really and helped us enjoy the game at a young age.”
Murray’s shy but friendly off-court personality and his temperamental on-court antics could well have been influenced in part by a traumatic boyhood experience. As an eight-year-old primary school student in Dunblane, he hid in the headmaster’s office when a gunman murdered 16 children and a teacher. In 2004, referring to the school tragedy in Beslan, Russia, he told The Scotsman newspaper, “I try not to think about it too much, but it is in the back of your mind when there’s all of this going on.”
At 15, he realised he lacked competition at home and was falling behind Nadal. So he and his parents decided he should train full-time at the famed Barcelona tennis academy run by Emilio Sanchez, former World No. 1 in doubles. “It was a big sacrifice to move away from your family, and spend money training over there when you’re not making any back,” Murray told The Guardian in 2007. “You're spending 30,000 euros a year to train yourself as a tennis player, and if you’re no good it’s a waste of money.” The sacrifice paid off nicely. With pros like former singles No. 1 Carlos Moya there, the ambitious Murray was inspired and educated about big-time tennis for two years while his strength, stamina, technique, and tactics improved.
From 2008 to 2011, Murray plateaued in the year-end rankings at No. 4. Beaten decisively in the finals of the 2008 U.S. Open, 2010 Australian Open, and 2012 Wimbledon by Federer and in the 2011 Australian final by Djokovic, Murray worried he might never win a Grand Slam title.
Enter Hall of Famer Ivan Lendl in 2012. Lendl, another early-career bridesmaid who also lost his first four major finals in the 1980s, could relate to Murray. As fast as you can say, “Play more aggressively, Andy, and focus, don’t pout,” coach Lendl guided Murray to an Olympic gold medal and the U.S. Open title in 2012 and the Wimbledon crown in 2013. Lendl quit in March 2014, and Murray struggled again.
Murray didn’t win a major title after the 2013 Wimbledon, and his career record in major finals had sunk to a dismal 2-8. Desperate to be a champion again, he reached out to his saviour last June. Once again, Lendl worked his coaching magic. As Judy Murray noted this summer, “It’s a tough thing to win a Slam, and [Ivan] has been there at each Slam Andy’s won, and that’s not a coincidence.”
Murray explained how Lendl managed to bring out the best in him, especially when it mattered most. “Ivan is the best coach I’ve had,” he told The Telegraph (UK) in June. “Because in sport, you base how good someone is on results, and the results I had with Ivan were the best. At the time I had never won a Grand Slam [event]. Ivan had been through a lot of the same things that I had, and speaking to someone like him, someone who seemed to be incredibly strong and mentally tough, it was good to know he felt sick before Grand Slam finals and had failed many times.
“He lost 11 Grand Slam finals. I have lost eight, which I would rather not have done, but there are better players than me who have lost more. It was good to have someone like that who could normalise failing, make it OK to lose, rather than it just being like, “Oh this is a disaster.”
Ivan The Terrific doesn’t deserve all the credit by any means. Murray praised low-profile, but astute assistant coach, Jamie Delgado, a former British Davis Cup player. “I have to give a lot of credit to Jamie,” said Murray. “To get to No. 1 takes a full year’s work, and Jamie has been there for every tournament, every single day working with me from the beginning of this year. I needed to improve my consistency and I have done that.”
Fatherhood — his daughter Sophia was born in February — also calmed and matured Murray. “Having a kid does change things for you,” he said. “For me, at the end of days, getting to see my kid made tennis not the most important thing anymore. It made my mind work a bit differently. And I think that helped.”
Although Murray could not be in a better place for the ATP Finals, he hardly exudes confidence. “It (being No. 1) might only be for one week,” he acknowledged. “So, I might as well try and enjoy it. Because I could lose it at the ATP Tour Finals and never be there again.”
Regardless, it would be entirely fitting if the last match of the ATP season — a climactic final featuring Murray and Djokovic — decided the No. 1 ranking.