Murray... more than a ray of hope!

"I believe I can get there," Murray has said of the No. 1 ranking. "These last few months have proved that to me. I’ll give it my best shot to do it, because I may never get another chance."

Andy Murray of Britain closes in on Novak Djokovic for the No. 1 ranking.   -  AP

Novak Djokovic appears to be struggling at the moment, but the Serb is not the one to give up easily.   -  AP

Of the many debates that rage in the current era of tennis, the most intense has been to decide if this is indeed the best the sport has ever had. With three sure-shot GOAT (Greatest of All-Time) candidates in Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, it can’t be otherwise, can it?

Such a conclusion though comes with a huge downside. A player not named Federer, Nadal or Djokovic is rarely considered a winner. Even in the era of Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors — a period that comes closest to the present era — there was always a place for the likes of Guillermo Vilas and Ilie Nastase.

And in the era of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, there was still a place for Jim Courier, Gustavo Kuerten and Yevgeny Kafelnikov. The Federers, the Nadals and the Djokovics possess giant halos and deservedly so. But they are almost always illuminated further by the complete denigration of the rest of the field.

Perhaps no one has been a bigger victim of this than Andy Murray. The Brit is a three-time major winner and an eight-time finalist. But he is a fourth fiddle to Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. After all, isn’t he the one with a win-loss record of 4-17 against the ‘Big Three’ in major semifinals and finals but 10-0 against everyone else? He is the very best among the rest but never worthy enough to be clubbed with the best. The inherent danger in such debates is the false binary one can easily slip into.

Winning only three of the 11 Grand Slam tournament finals doesn’t make one a serial loser. Even Stan Wawrinka, who has a 3-0 record in major finals and someone who is being equated with Murray achievements-wise, may tell you that he’d rather be 3-8 than 3-0.

In addition to the Slams, with two Olympic Gold medals and 13 ATP Masters titles, Murray deserves to be in the pantheon of greats in his own right. If anything, the very strength of the competition should magnify Murray’s achievements. It’s one thing to play for the love of the sport beyond your best days as Federer has, but entirely another to take loss after loss supposedly in your peak but still persevere to come out on top.

 

“I’m proud,” Murray said after he won the Wimbledon for the second time in July. “That I managed to do it again after a lot of tough losses in the latter stages of the Slams.”

Prior to the U.S. Open, Murray hadn’t seen his six-month old daughter Sophia for three weeks. At the end of it he said, “There’s not like one thing she’s doing differently but in 21 days, she is just bigger and more mature. When she’s eating she’s eating better. She’s not dropping it everywhere. Her coordination is a bit better.”

It hasn’t been much different for Murray himself, only that three weeks need to be replaced by three years. In fact, the two Wimbledon wins Murray has had — the first in 2013 and the next in 2016 – can serve as two important reference points in his career and the intervening period can tell one how the 29-year-old has evolved as a player.

If three years ago he won the title to satisfy the length and breadth of a champion-starved nation, the latest victory was deeply personal. The 2013 final against Djokovic was considered drab. It was a defensive master-class from Murray against a player known for his defensive skills. It did not make for good watching particularly with long monotonous cross-court exchanges. But the Murray of 2016 serves big down the T, has been more than willing to dispense with his defensive-minded but ultra-consistent baseline game and lets his forehand dictate play more than ever before.

All this has reflected in probably his best year till date. Forever a hard-court specialist, he won the Italian Open on the slow clay in Rome and then reached his first French Open final. Then came the Wimbledon trophy on grass and the successful defence of his Olympic Gold, a first by a men’s tennis player.

Now, after an impressive Asian swing where he did the Beijing-Shanghai double without dropping a set, he is in with a chance to become the World No. 1 eclipsing Djokovic. It has indeed coincided with a slight dip in the Serb’s form, but then again, juxtaposing Murray’s upswing with Djokovic’s winless few weeks is belittling to say the least.

As John McEnroe told a teleconference on ESPN, “The moment Novak lost, it sort of lifted (Murray) and things have shifted a little bit. But it just shows you how little it takes (to separate the two).”

“I believe I can get there,” Murray has said of the No. 1 ranking. “These last few months have proved that to me. I’ll give it my best shot to do it, because I may never get another chance.”

This era is still indisputably the Djokovic era. But to deny Murray a place under the sun would be a remiss. After the birth of his daughter, Murray has often said that tennis wasn’t the most important thing in his life any more. “Probably when I was younger and didn’t have a family, then it was the most important thing.”

If one construes this as a diminishing of the competitive edge, it would be grossly unfair. It is perhaps just to ensure that if the head wears the crown — the No. 1 player’s crown — it doesn’t hang heavy.

The possibilities for Murray

In the race to the ATP World Tour finals in London, Novak Djokovic currently has 10,600 points and Andy Murray 9685.

Murray will play in the Vienna Open now and the Paris Masters next week. In Paris he is defending runner-up points.

Djokovic will play the Paris Masters where he is defending winners’ points.

If Murray wins in Vienna, the 500 points he would gain would cut Djokovic’s lead over him to 415 points. Paris Masters has 1,000 points for the winner, enough for Murray to make a move for World No. 1.

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