U.S. Open Champion. Grand Slam winner. Title-holding member of men’s tennis Big Four.
For the first time in his career, Andy Murray is all of these things.
And for the first time in his career, Andy Murray is just a tennis player.
From the early stages of Murray’s tennis saga, his place in the sport has been decided for him by the media. No British man had won a singles Grand Slam event since Fred Perry in 1936, and Murray’s success as a youth, including wins at the Glasgow Futures event as a 16-year-old and the 2004 Junior U.S. Open at age 17, put the spotlight on the Scottish up-and-comer.
After those dramatic victories, Murray seemed destined to bear the burden of Great Britain’s tennis hopes, and from early moments in his career he seemed to be inseparable from the prospect of Britain’s 70-plus year drought coming to an end.
Perhaps that burden is why it has taken so long.
Murray could not compete in a Grand Slam tournament without being surrounded by his homeland’s tale of frustration. When players like Andy Roddick, Juan Martin Del Potro and Novak Djokovic were celebrated by their countries, Murray was inadvertently pressured by his.
The weight of the world, or at least the weight of the island of Britain, rested on Murray’s shoulders.
The national pressure on Murray was only exacerbated by the era in which he has played. Few tennis aficionados would put up any argument to the notion that the last eight years have been the most difficult time to play tennis if your name was not Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic.
Those three individuals had famously won 29 of 30 tournaments dating as far back as 2005 before Murray’s victory on Monday. The trio made up an intimidating top three in the sport, a frustrating scenario for the rest of the field.
But Murray somehow found a spot between the “Big Three” and the “rest of the field.”
Tennis analysts everywhere agreed that Murray’s talent put him in the same category as Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.
His trophy case told a different story.
His abilities were undeniable, but something about Murray’s game kept him a half-step below the Big Three. For many years, the mysterious X-factor seemed to be Murray’s emotions.
When playing on level ground, Murray was as technically sound as anyone in the game. But all it took was a stubborn opponent or a few unforced errors to get Murray chattering to himself out of frustration, and in big games, Murray would become unraveled.
He could keep his cool against a lesser opponent, but when facing players on his level or better, the psychological edge seemed to always tilt to the other end of the court for Murray.
Match by match, tournament by tournament and season by season, Murray began to control his emotions. The frustration would still show as clearly on his face, but it became harder and harder to see in his game. Murray became capable of withstanding the psychological warfare waged upon him by opponents, the media and his own expectations.
There are no better examples of Murray’s ability to turn emotion into focus than his triumphs in Wimbledon 2012.
With all eyes on him in his home country, Murray put up the most valiant effort of his life, fighting his way against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to earn a chance to end his nation’s woes on home court. Murray won the first set of his championship match with Roger Federer, the first set that Murray had won in four Grand Slam Finals appearances.
Federer would win the next three sets to capture the title, which left Andy Murray to give one of the most poignant runner-up speeches in tennis history. For Murray, Wimbledon could be succinctly summed up in a tearful, heavy sentence: “I’m getting closer.”
From that crushing moment when his storybook rise to stardom ultimately fell short, the old Murray likely would have lost his focus for the remainder of 2012.
But, perhaps motivated by a second opportunity to win an important event in front of his countrymen, Murray marched onward, winning the gold medal in men’s singles at the 2012 Summer Olympics.
The U.S. Open final tested Murray’s resiliency one last time. After two hard-fought wins in the first two sets, Murray seemed to have no answer when Novak Djokovic turning his own emotion up to 10. Djokovic evened the match to send it to a fifth set, a set that the old Andy Murray would have undoubtedly dropped.
But as he stood at center court at Arthur Ashe Stadium, with the dreams of the nation still firmly saddled on his back and the media still chattering about his inability to win the big matches, Andy Murray finally managed to just play tennis.
It did not matter when Fred Perry last won a Grand Slam title for Great Britain. It did not matter how many times that Novak Djokovic had psychologically bullied an opponent. It did not matter that Murray himself had already lost four title matches in his young career and had blown a 2-0 set lead in the match.
Murray just played tennis.
And he won.
He is no longer Britain's greatest hope to end a decades-long drought. He is no longer the black sheep of the Big Four. He is no longer tennis’ saddest story.
Andy Murray is now, finally, simply a tennis player.