Andy Murray has had a nice career, but his latest episode and defeat at the U.S. Open shows he has not yet taken that next step.
The word ‘legacy’ has become integral to sports. It is not strictly about talent or statistics, but rather the narrative of one’s career. The impetus for sports immortality usually tends to be rings, rings and more rings, but it’s also about how one answers the moment. It tends to be the difference between a champion and an icon. The mental aspect and clutch gene are relied upon to distinguish between the great and the best. Andy Murray finds himself stuck in the “just a champion” camp, after another big moment and a chance to validate himself as a generational player passed him by in spectacular fashion.
Murray failed to build on what was shaping up as a career-making year for him following a second Wimbledon title, runner-up finishes at the Australian and French Opens, and a second straight Olympic Gold medal at the Rio Games. The U.S. Open was supposed to be the continuation of this new and improved Murray, one who no longer looked like just a player to watch out for, or a Djokovic punching-bag, but rather the man to beat.
The Scot was playing as well as anyone leading up to his quarterfinal showdown on Wednesday afternoon against world No. 6 Kei Nishikori. Djokovic’s stunning defeat against American Sam Querrey at the All-England Club and his lingering injury problems made Murray the front-runner, not by the odds makers but by many tennis fans who witnessed his seemingly unshakable form. The epic thriller that unfolded proved that old habits do not break easily and also gave credence to the idea that superstars are not often made after the age of 29.
Murray dominated in the early goings, breezing through the opening set 6-1, indicating to the fans that they might be able to beat rush-hour traffic in what looked to be a rout. But everything changed when mother nature, as she tends to do at Flushing Meadows, intervened and bought Nishikori some time to regroup after a rain delay in the middle of the second set, where he returned re-energized and more engaged. The roof was subsequently closed, which Murray admitted had allowed his opponent more reaction time on his serves due to the lack of wind. Nishikori seized his opportunity and evened the match.
Regardless of the impact weather has on a match, the top dogs usually find ways to power through. The conditions may work in the advantage of the lower seed, as they are able to regain their confidence and have more time to leap over the mental hurdles that usually plague the underdog. Murray, like the Big Three, or Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, he has been chasing throughout his career, should have the composure to overcome such adversity. And it looked like he would do just that when he won the third set and had double-break point up 1-0 in the climactic fourth set.
This is the time when the cold-blooded Djokovic locks into a laser-focus. He mercilessly punishes his opponent for opening the door, kicks it down, moves in and sends you packing all before you even figure out what went wrong so fast. Murray did not reach that next level in his match. It was instead another instance of what could have been, or rather what should be.
The 15-40 point put the crowd in a bizarro world, where the previously solid Murray became flustered by every distraction that presented itself. A loud gong sounded in the middle of a rally that appeared to be in Murray’s control, forcing the chair umpire to call for a replay of the point. The disruption induced the world No. 2 into a state of delusion he never fully escaped. He netted a soft Nishikori second serve before complaining again to the chair, claiming that he was told that the noise, which had been an issue earlier as well, would not result in the stopping of a point.
While Murray’s assertion might very well be true, the number ones of the world vent, but have a short memory, especially in the match’s most crucial moments. He lost the next eight games. In addition to the gong, a moth, in a scene that was humorous and a bit ominous, broke Murray’s concentration and cost him the point. Murray had an exasperated look on his face that would suggest to someone not in their right mind that Nishikori had been the architect of the opportune mishaps in order to compensate for his own struggles with mental toughness.
Tennis is an individual game filled with unexpected obstacles- the crowd, cramps, weather-but it takes composure above all else to carry one to the apex. Murray was exposed as a great player who misses the A-grade time and time again. Perhaps it seems unfair to criticize a pillar of consistency like Murray. Since the start of 2011 he has made it to at least a quarterfinal in a major 22 of the 23 slams he played during that time frame. He also happens to be the savior of British tennis. But if he is going to be labeled a member of the Big Four, he better act like it instead of allowing his emotions to get the better of him. Jimmy Connors, a man whose legacy needs no questioning, used his rage as a mechanism to propel himself toward victory. Murray temporarily self-destructed. He did not just get angry, he lost his cool.
The desperate Murray then flipped the script, as the elites do, breaking back and changing the entire complexion of the match. For the moment anyway; Nishikori broke back, but choked up 4-3, leading 40-0 on his serve. He lost five straight points, none bigger than a routine volley he sent into the net. Ballgame, right? Superstars make players pay for massive meltdowns. Nishikori should be in the midst of a week long drinking binge right now. Instead, he broke Murray for a ninth time in the match and a decisive third time in the set. Even the truly great players show vulnerability, but they do not squander second and third chances.
The stakes were high for Murray, with a spot atop the world rankings now officially out of reach in 2016. He will have to wait to fulfill his quest, and his fans, too, will be tasked with trying to decipher this complex puzzle. There is something to be said for the strides he has made, but he cannot be truly lauded as a member of the Big Four when he has only three Grand Slams and the triumvirate of Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal all have reached double digits. He is a victim of false advertising, as he has had a career many anyone outside the aforementioned Big Three would love to have, but this perception of super-star potential, coupled with the inability to deliver in high-pressure situations, warrants any criticism he has and will receive.
Murray did not show his wounds and actually handled the press conference well. He will recover when the Aussie Open rolls around in January, and he will once again be labeled as Djokovic’s biggest threat. With 30 around the corner, though, he may never claim the title that proves he was indisputably the best player at any time during his career. The elusive No. 1 ranking means a lot to him, even if he won’t admit it. Without it, he is the opening act, albeit a solid one, but he is still watching the Beatles from behind the curtain, hoping to one day join them on the grand stage.
Murray’s place in tennis lore is still a prestigious one, but fans will continue to wonder if he is a transcendent player. Based not on his skill, but his inability to tune everything out and rise to the occasion on a consistent basis, the answer has been a resounding no. Grouping him in with the Big Four is a disservice to the three of the game’s greatest, and to him as well. It is unfair to risk calling a three-time major champion (probably a couple more coming if he maintains his peak condition) a disappointment just because he has not fulfilled expectations that were prematurely placed on his shoulders. The moth and the gong are merely symbolic barriers of his big-match shortcomings.
Edited by John Ray.
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