As I sat watching Sunday’s stubborn, yet grueling, yet peculiar 3-hour and 9-minute Wimbledon final between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, I couldn’t escape the feeling that something was out of sorts throughout the entire match. Yes, I could not have predicted that the Scot would win in straight sets—frankly I was on board with John McEnroe who said something along the lines of, “They’re similar players, great returners who have fixed any liabilities in their game that they did have a few years ago, but Novak is slightly better. If Novak plays his best game against Andy’s best game, Novak wins.” But that is far from maintaining that Andy could not win. After all, Murray ousted Djokovic on Centre Court just shy of a year ago in the semifinals of the London Olympics before Murray of course went on to take the gold over Roger Federer less than a month after Murray’s darkest hour: a heartbreaking loss to Federer at the 2012 Wimbledon Final. Coming into yesterday’s final, Djokovic had an 11-7 all-time head-to-head advantage over Murray, so while most would consider Djokovic to be the slight favorite, a Murray win was more than a possibility.
Since Murray’s win yesterday, the media has stuck with the obvious headline: that Murray has ended the 77-year British drought at Wimbledon. And he played a brilliant match. After only earning 4 break point chances against Djokovic in the entire Australian Open Final, their last head-to-head meeting at a slam won comfortably by Djoker in 4 sets, Murray surpassed that number within the span of Djokovic’s first two service games of the first set. There is no worse feeling of hopelessness in tennis than the belief that you simply cannot break your opponent’s serve, just ask John Isner or Nicolas Mahut, and Andy Murray never allowed that doubt—doubt that has seemed to haunt him at Wimbledons past—to creep into his mind. He was all over Djokovic’s serve early. And that was consistent throughout the match; Murray allowed few comfortable holds for Djokovic—thus never giving Djokovic any free games to reserve energy. Murray’s court-coverage was sound, as it always is, and his unforced error tally was low—very Murray-like statistics. His first serve percentage was high. All of this means that, given the way Murray played, he gave himself a chance to win—in fact, he gave himself a very good chance to win. However, the enduring feeling I was left with, even as I watched Murray finally close out a gripping, nerve-racking final game in which he nearly squandered a 40-0 advantage that was rather representative of his entire career and his entire quest for a Wimbledon title, is that Novak never fought back.
Again, none of this is meant to be a slight against Murray—a man who as I said gave himself ‘a very good opportunity’ to win yesterday’s match. If anything, one should construe my forthcoming remarks as begging the question of exactly where Novak Djokovic was yesterday. For physically, and at times even mentally given much of his shot selection, the Novak we have come to respect—and even root for—over the last couple of years was not to be found. The main reason would seemingly be that he was simply tired. Any hyperbolic adjective known to man would have trouble living up to describing his semifinal match against the Argentinian giant Juan Martin Del Potro: a match that, in my ten years of watching a fair amount of tennis, surpassed the quality of any match that I have had the pleasure of witnessing. The tantalizing fixture was exhausting to watch, and surely unfathomable to be a part of. To come back two days later to play in a Wimbledon final against a man in Andy who appeared to be on a collision course with destiny is no easy task—and Djokovic showed no sign of being able to equal Murray’s desire for victory.
Novak all but conceded that he was drained coming into yesterday’s final. After graciously congratulating Murray in his post-match interview, he noted that his physical state of affairs forced him to go for more early on in points—something that Djokovic can do at times but not yet consistently. And when you’re facing someone in Andy who does not commit many unforced errors, most opponents do have to go for more early: and that’s ultimately why they’re not as good as Andy Murray. But Novak can keep up with Andy: that’s the point. Murray’s strengths are a never-before-seen return game, ability to stay in long rallies, and court coverage. Conveniently, those are the very same strengths as Djokovic. Except, historically Djokovic is just a fraction better at the very same style of game in which they play—perhaps attributable to Novak’s ability to create his own pace and go for more without compromising a low unforced error tally. Yesterday, Murray hit 36 winners to Djokovic’s 31 and 21 unforced errors to Djokovic’s 40. Djokovic can live with hitting more unforced errors than Murray (probably not nearly double as many as he did on Sunday—closer to 20 or 30% more), but Murray should never be hitting more winners than Djokovic because of Djokovic’s aforementioned ability to put the ball away in situations in which Murray is unable to do so.
So maybe that’s just it. Murray played intelligently, Djokovic didn’t because he was tired, and a good guy deservedly has the pressure of a 77-year drought now lifted off his shoulders. Maybe I’ve just been spoiled, and at Wimbledon in particular. Too many Federer-Nadal Classics, the epic 2009 clash between the last great American hope Andy Roddick and Federer, and Friday’s semifinal between Del Potro and Djokovic which most certainly deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence. I guess all I wanted was for Novak Djokovic to ask one final question of Andy Murray, give him one final legitimate test before his dream could become a reality. Maybe if Djokovic broke Murray in that final game then Andy would have had to dig deep in order to take home the hardware. But that did not happen. My mind wanted a fairy tale ending: Murray defeating Djoker 11-9 in the 5th in which Murray hits a diving winner, falling into the welcoming arms of a posh English crowd that finally, truly embraces their soft-spoken fellow Scot-Brit. That did not happen either. In the end, part of winning a Grand Slam tournament is winning the battle of attrition, and Murray handily beat Djokovic in that department 1-0. And in that, Andy Murray, hailing from Dunblane, Scotland, is a Wimbledon Champion.
Yesterday’s final was befitting of Andy Murray: somewhat subdued but gritty. More importantly, match aside, albeit untraditional and at times lacking the bravado that we so desperately crave in our storylines, Andy Murray’s journey from childhood to Wimbledon Champion was a battle of attrition that he has won—and the end result as much a fairy tale as any.