Andy Murray Finally Wins a Grand Slam

16:04 Sun 16 Sep 2012
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The US Open overran its schedule for the fifth year in a row, and once again the men’s final was on a Monday. It was also Andy Murray’s fifth chance to win a Grand Slam final, and this time he took it, defeating defending champion Novak Djokovic 7–6 (10), 7–5, 2–6, 3–6, 6–2.

Further, it was the first time a player from the United Kingdom has won a Grand Slam title since Fred Perry’s US Open win in 1936[1]. More significantly for modern men’s tennis, it meant that for the first time since 2003, all of the Grand Slams have different champions, with the Australian Open, the French Open, and Wimbledon having gone to Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer respectively[2].

Murray has been a hard court contender for quite some time, reaching his first major final in New York in 2008. He also has eight Masters 1000 hard court titles since 2008, and many tennis commentators regarded the US Open as the most likely Grand Slam for him to win.

His win in New York was impressive but uneven. In the quarterfinals he was down a set and in a deep hole in the second against ?ili? before ?ili? just fell apart mentally. In the semifinals he lost the first set to Berdych, and was somewhat lucky to be playing in windy conditions that favored him[3]. The final was dramatic and swingy, but not quite a classic. Djokovic had also been uneven in his semifinal, and kept giving up big leads to Murray. He would then try to pull back, with initial success, but Murray would barely hold him off. That’s what happened in the first two sets, and then Djokovic asserted himself over the next two. In the fifth, however, he didn’t have much left, while Murray looked fit and strong. This was an extremely physical final, with Murray managing to knock Djokovic over several times after punishing side-to-side rallies. While this was not Djokovic at his best, Murray still had to overcome a phenomenal player, and he did so while looking like the stronger player over five sets. Large portions of the match seemed like a contest over who could hit the ball harder—a contest Murray eventually won. It also featured some of the loudest grunting I’ve heard in a men’s match for a while.

With Murray’s win, it’s clear that there really is a “Big Four” of men’s tennis, and the stranglehold of Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal has been loosened. The gap between those four and the rest of the field seems as large as ever, Berdych’s upset of Federer notwithstanding. Murray is now only the second man (with Juan Martin del Potro) other than those three to have won a Grand Slam title since January 2005. Both his and del Potro’s title came at the US Open; Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal have not let anyone else win the other three Grand Slams. In that same period, there have been 70 Masters tournaments and seven year-end championships; only 13 out of those 77 tournaments were won by players other than Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, and Murray[4]. Murray has been far more consistent than del Potro prior to his Grand Slam win (eight Masters 100 titles to none for del Potro), and del Potro’s injuries have hampered his ability to follow up on that performance. This is a fantastic period for men’s tennis, and it should continue for a while as Murray, Djokovic, and Nadal are 25, 25, and 26 respectively—although Nadal’s career longevity is more questionable than the others. Federer, at 31, is the oldest of the group by far.

As for Federer, he was disappointingly flat against Berdych. Berdych is definitely a difficult matchup for him, but despite Berdych’s high level of play it seemed that Federer was just off, peppering the court with frequent errors. The style of the final between Djokovic and Murray was quite different from the Wimbledon final, and it wasn’t just the surface. Federer’s play makes the game appear less physical, both because of his shortening points and because of his movement around the court. I’d like to see statistics on average groundstroke speed (with slices, lobs, etc. removed from the numbers) for the top four, as it seems like Djokovic, Nadal, and Murray hit the ball harder more regularly.

Nadal is still out, and he’s dropped to fourth in the world. While it’s mathematically possible for Murray to get the year-end number one ranking, the odds are that he will remain number three in the world through the end of the year.

Federer and Djokovic’s results leave Federer with a lead of about 1300 in the rankings. Federer, however, has more points to defend in the late part of the season, and Djokovic still has an excellent chance at claiming the year-end number one spot. The two remaining Masters 1000 events in Shanghai and Paris will be critical in this race, even the smaller tournament in Basel could be important, and it’s possible that the ranking will be decided by the results of the year-end championships—something that hasn’t been the case since 1998, when Sampras barely held off Marcelo Rios. If Federer does hold onto the ranking, he will tie Sampras’ record of six year-end number one rankings (Sampras, however, did it in six consecutive years); he would also take Lendl’s record for the oldest man to hold the ranking. If Djokovic reclaims it, it will be his second (consecutive) year-end number one ranking.

[1] Of course, Murray is Scottish, so the long drought for English men’s tennis continues…

[2] Incidentally the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th men’s Grand Slams of the year were won by their 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th seeds.

[3] Although I suspect he would have eventually prevailed against Berdych anyway; Berdych played at an extremely high level against Federer in their quarterfinal and was likely to have struggled to maintain that.

[4] Only eight other players have broken through in that period:

  • Davydenko: Paris 2006, Miami 2008, Shanghai 2009, YEC 2009.
  • Nalbandian: YEC 2005, Madrid 2007, Paris 2007.
  • Berdych: Paris 2005.
  • Robredo: Hamburg 2006.
  • Roddick: Cincinnati 2007.
  • Tsonga: Paris 2008.
  • Ljubičić: Indian Wells 2010.
  • Söderling: Paris 2010.
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