Inferior to Novak Djokovic? Yes. But Andy Murray can still topple the world No. 1
Be wary, Novak Djokovic… Andy Murray has peaked at the perfect time and has every chance of lifting the French Open trophy before the world No. 1.
Stan Wawrinka could have hardly given a more comprehensive, logical rebuttal when dealt a question about whether he felt his career was on equal terms with Andy Murray’s. Immediately, the defending champion shook his head.
“No. No,” he stressed. “I think he is light years ahead of me. Now that I've won a second Grand Slam people say I'm closer to him [...] But [..] he's well ahead of me given all the titles, the finals, No. 2 in the world, and he has so many Masters 1000, as well. Therefore, as I keep on repeating, he's in the Big 4. There is a reason for this.”
The only thing more convincing than Wawrinka setting fire to the terrible narrative that his two Slam victories in two years are equal to Murray’s decade of brilliance were the actions from Murray himself as the pair took to court.
As a player whose greatest strength is torturing his opponents’ weaknesses, it’s not often that the countless frills in Murray's complex, varied game conjoin in fluid harmony. But for two sets every aspect of Murray’s game flowed seamlessly. Every time Murray could, he stepped to the baseline, pounded backhands and swept into the net to close out points. He kept Wawrinka in a maze of dropshots and angles, constantly forcing the Swiss into motion. And when Wawrinka was able to unleash, he erected a wall around Chatrier and kept the winners out.
Murray said earlier in the tournament that clay could possibly be in the process of becoming his best surface, and even beyond this run of form on clay over the past two years that has marked one of the best surface specific set of results in his entire career, this was the most convincing sign yet. It may be a different brand of creativity, but like grass, the potential for Murray to use his full arsenal on the surface was made simple and plain.
By the end of the match, Murray had produced one of the greatest performances of his career to reach the French Open final. In the whole showing, there was only one solitary moment of contention which arrived when Wawrinka finally began to rock back and land those big groundstrokes.
At 5-4 in the third set, Wawrinka overturned a 40-15 deficit to steal the set and he conducted the crowd into action. As seen in the final a year earlier, this could have been the moment that Wawrinka’s game clicked into lethal rhythm and he began to undo the score deficit. Instead, he started off the set with a series of unforced errors and a double fault. Murray stole the first break and never looked back.
As Wawrinka said, there is a reason for all of this. There’s a reason why Murray nipped the comeback in the bud and accelerated to safety, while Wawrinka quickly faltered. It’s the same reason why Murray spent his first two matches completely unable to decipher why he was barely playing at the level of a top 100 player, yet he radiated clarity and during his most difficult challenge yet.
In an era of unprecedented greatness, the niche Murray has carved out for himself just beneath the cut has similarly never been seen before and it’s not something that a couple of Grand Slams can equal. Throughout his years, Murray has always been so conscious of his inferiority to the top players. The consequences of understanding this and endeavoring to remain as close to them as possible has defined his career and he has learnt qualities that take a whole career to take in.
Murray isn’t merely just a mentally strong fighter, but he has come to master the basic and most important concept of the sport - winning tennis matches - as he showed as he overcame those early deficits. He is constantly improving, which is why such results on clay are possible in the first place. He understands the rhythms of a tournament and how to get himself though the rounds of a big tournament, and he has put himself in a position to be successful time and time again. In his nine slam finals, Murray has never faced a player outside of the big four. It’s a brutal deal.
Even after Murray’s success during the clay season, there are still many people who believe there is no chance of a Djokovic defeat unless the nerves and fear on the brink of history return. The Djokovic-Murray rivalry has become a source of resentment, with the two similar games always conspiring to cancelling the other out rather than complimenting each other. The matches usually aren’t entertaining, and the first rule of tennis is that when two similar players face each other, the superior game will usually win.
But the most significant aspect of Murray’s win is that he has given himself by far the greatest chance he could have offered himself defeating Djokovic. Unlike other times, he hasn’t bundled into the final, continuing his poor play or passively leaching off Wawrinka’s errors.
That’s the beauty of being ubiquitous in the late stages of the big tournaments; at times Murray has arrived in poor form and has been outclassed, at times even his best hasn’t been nearly enough. But unlike anyone else, he’s present enough for there to be fleeting moments when he might just be prepared to get it done against these giants of the sport on the biggest stages. As Djokovic once again attempts to capture his elusive slam and hold all four at once, it could well be this time.