Spotlight On … Andy Murray

After his eventful year, and following his third Sports Personality of the Year Award last weekend, I reflect on Andy Murray’s rise, and on how he has gotten to where he is today.

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Eleven years ago, when Andy Murray first came onto the British (and global) sporting scene aged 18, few could have predicted what he would have achieved, or how the public would have taken him to their hearts. A slim youth with great potential, he has been watched like a hawk ever since he first played at Wimbledon in 2005, where he reached the third round, showing signs of brilliance despite losing to David Nalbandian in five sets.

A few years passed and Murray began to consolidate himself in the men’s game, breaking into the World’s top 10 in April 2007, but always fading when he came up against those thought of as the giants of tennis, Rafael Nadal in particular being an Achilles heel of his. He simply couldn’t find a way to beat Nadal in Grand Slams, until 2008 when he finally triumphed over him in the semi-finals of the US Open.

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Another challenge he faced was public perception. His somewhat dour demeanour in the press did not endear him to British viewers and tennis enthusiasts. Although the Brits love an underdog, they love a character more, and so his diffidence and unswerving tennis jargon left many unmoved.

But he began to acquire more confidence, and more skill, as the years passed. His repertoire of shots widened, his fitness increased, and he blossomed into more of an all-round player, one who (albeit in hushed tones) was starting to be mentioned as a Grand Slam contender. But great champions are never made until they have a brush with failure. And with Murray, this came on numerous occasions. Of all 4 major titles, he reached the final of the US Open first, in 2008, but lost to Roger Federer. He also lost to the Swiss in the 2010 final of the Australian Open, but it was his defeat to his friend Novak Djokovic in the 2011 Australian final that led to his comment on Grand Slams that ‘if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.’ Even the man himself seemed resigned at this point to a career without a major title.

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However, with the end of 2011 everything changed. He changed coach, employing former player and Grand Slam champion Ivan Lendl (who, like Murray, lost his first four Grand Slam finals before finally prevailing). In 2012 Murray reached the final of home tournament Wimbledon for the first time, and although he played well, he was defeated by crowd favourite Roger Federer in four sets. Now infamously, the usually unemotional Scot shed tears on Centre Court during his runner’s-up speech, which perhaps marked the beginning of the public thaw towards him. It also motivated him to greater heights, and it was on the same court less than a month later that he triumphed in the Olympic Singles Final during the London 2012 games, defeating Federer and winning the Gold medal.

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Following this came the US Open, where he got to the final and faced Djokovic, as he had done in Grand Slam finals previously without success. He went two sets up but faded over time to see Djokovic take the next two sets with relative ease, before he rallied to win the final set 6-2 and take his first Grand Slam title. He had always known he was capable, but this first victory proved, both to him and the sporting world, that he really could do it.

At Wimbledon a year later, he beat Djokovic again in a punishing straight-sets match that did not reflect the back-and-forth nature of play. In something of a surprise move, however, in March 2014, Murray and Lendl  parted company, apparently due to the Czech’s inability to commit to Murray’s schedule. In June that year, the Scot took on Amélie Mauresmo, the French former Grand Slam champion, as a replacement, in what some saw as a bold and risky move. A year in the relative wilderness followed, some say due to back surgery Murray had undergone in late 2013. He still reached the quarter-finals of the 2014 Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open (and the semi-final of the French Open), but compared with his two previous years it was a lean time.

However, come 2015 he had another successful year, geared mainly around the Davis Cup, which Britain won for the first time in over seventy years (mostly due to his often Herculean efforts). But change was coming. In February 2016 he appointed former player Jamie Delgado as his assistant coach, and bid farewell to Mauresmo as coach in May, with Lendl agreeing to return to the role in June, which has proved decisive. Murray won the Queen’s title for a fifth time shortly after welcoming Lendl back to the fold, and went on to win a second Wimbledon title (against the same opponent as at Queens, Milos Raonic) later in the summer.

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After carrying the flag at the Olympic opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro this summer, he went on to retain the Singles title with victory over a resurgent Juan Martin del Potro in a bruising four-set final. This, combined with a string of consecutive Masters wins, took him to World Number One. Djokovic has been out of sorts since his third-round loss at Wimbledon in June, and Murray’s victory against him in the ATP World Tour Final meant that the Scot remained the best in the world at year’s end, making 2016 his most successful sporting year to date. This culminated in him being named Sports Personality of the Year for a third time last weekend. He has become a Dad in 2016 as well, to boot.

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His next target will likely be the Australian Open title that has thus far eluded him. Whatever happens, interesting times await for men’s tennis, and for Murray. His fellow players and his fans alike will be watching him very closely.

Alex Nicholson

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