Ten­nis' 4th Bea­tle, Mur­ray is paragon of for­ti­tude

Malta Independent - - SPORT -

For each top ath­lete, a word. For Usain Bolt, it would have to be speed. For foot­ball's Lionel Messi: bal­ance. For swim­mer Michael Phelps: buoy­ant. But for the new king of men's ten­nis, Andy Mur­ray, a qual­ity both men­tal and phys­i­cal springs to mind: for­ti­tude.

Mea­nies would ar­gue that Mur­ray has taken over the No.1 rank­ing this week — the first Bri­ton to reach the sum­mit — only be­cause the three play­ers who were bet­ter than him for so long fi­nally va­cated it, a ten­nis equiv­a­lent of John, Paul and Ge­orge giv­ing Ringo a rare turn at the mic. And there is a mod­icum of truth in that.

Roger Fed­erer, the 17-time ma­jor cham­pion who this week dropped out of the top 10 for the first time since Oc­to­ber 2002, long had the mea­sure of Mur­ray, beat­ing him in three Grand Slam fi­nals, but is now a largely spent force at age 35.

Rafael Nadal's creaky body is pay­ing the bill for his brand of nitro-power ten­nis that won him 14 ma­jor ti­tles and the top rank­ing for a to­tal of 141 weeks to July 2014. The 30-year-old hasn't won a ma­jor since then, or even made a semi­fi­nal, and has had in­juries to both wrists. But his ca­reer Grand Slam record against Mur­ray is un­equiv­o­cal: seven wins in nine en­coun­ters, with the last de­feat way back at the 2010 Aus­tralian Open.

And the top dog Mur­ray top­pled, the now sec­ond-ranked No­vak Djokovic, won five of his 12 ma­jor ti­tles by beat­ing the Scot in the fi­nal. If Djokovic can now re­group, re­think and re-mo­ti­vate him­self with new tar­gets hav­ing com­pleted his ca­reer Grand Slam this year and then suf­fer­ing a dip, leav­ing the door ajar for Mur­ray, then the reign of the new No. 1 could be short.

The top rank­ing, then, doesn't change the fact that Mur­ray is still "only," a word that seems un­char­i­ta­ble in the cir­cum­stances, the fourth-best player in what has been mod­ern ten­nis' tough­est era. But Mur­ray may well be the most stub­born, the era's paragon of per­se­ver­ance. Be­ing the fourth mem­ber of the Big Four for so long could have bro­ken play­ers with less heart. He first got to the No. 2 rank­ing more than seven years ago and spent a to­tal of 76 weeks there. That's a long time to be wait­ing in the wings.

But, in the end, Mur­ray out­lasted all-com­ers. He is the sailor who sol­diered through storms that chased oth­ers back to har­bor, the boxer re­peat­edly floored but never knocked out. He used the beat­ings he suf­fered from Fed­erer, Nadal and Djokovic — los­ing 20 of the 25 times he played them at the ma­jors — as rea­sons to keep im­prov­ing him­self. He could have cursed his luck, been led astray by the mirage that in any other decade, he'd have won more than two Wim­ble­don ti­tles and the U.S. Open by now. But in­stead Mur­ray just worked even harder, took bet­ter care of him­self and made sure that when the op­por­tu­nity fi­nally came, he was ready to seize it.

It would be tempt­ing to delve into Mur­ray's past for sign­posts that ex­plain his as­cent to the top.

One could ar­gue that cut­ting his ten­nis teeth in in­hos­pitable Scot­tish weather more suited to golf, rugby or foot­ball maybe tough­ened him up. As kids, he and brother Jamie would hit a bal­loon back and forth over rope hung from a ra­di­a­tor at home.

One could also fall into psy­chob­a­b­ble and haz­ard a guess that surviving the slaugh­ter of 16 chil­dren and their teacher by a gun­man at his Dun­blane Pri­mary School in 1996 helped teach Mur­ray about deep emo­tional pain and how to re­bound from it.

Or one could point to the teenaged Mur­ray who bad­gered his par­ents to send him to a ten­nis academy in Spain as ev­i­dence that he's never lacked drive and the will­ing­ness to make sac­ri­fices.

But more sim­ply, the top rank­ing is re­ward for his jour­ney. A long jour­ney, with mul­ti­ple cross­roads where Mur­ray could have turned back and con­vinced him­self that Mounts Fed­erer, Nadal and Djokovic were sim­ply too steep. In­stead, he kept climb­ing. Not the most elo­quent of speak­ers, at least not in pub­lic, one phrase of Mur­ray's stands out, de­liv­ered af­ter he lost to Fed­erer in the 2012 Wim­ble­don fi­nal.

"I'm go­ing to try this, and it's not go­ing to be easy," Mur­ray said, fight­ing back tears.

Specif­i­cally, he was talk­ing about how dif­fi­cult it was to de­liver his loser's speech to the sup­port­ive Cen­ter Court crowd.

But that phi­los­o­phy — "not easy" and "try" — is Mur­ray in a nut­shell.

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