LONDON, (Reuters) – British tennis was savouring its first male grand slam champion for 76 years on Tuesday but Andy Murray’s extraordinary feat in New York was actually the antithesis of decades of failure from the nation where the sport was born.
The 25-year-old’s refusal to accept second best in Monday’s U.S. Open final against Serbian ironman Novak Djokovic, to stare defeat in the face and still find the will to outlast one of sport’s greatest warriors are not qualities to be found in any of Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association coaching manuals.
If they were, Scot Murray might not be ploughing a lone furrow in the world’s top 100 in which he is the only British male.
Thanks to the hugely profitable Wimbledon championships, British tennis enjoys a budget that is the envy of the rest of the world, yet its failure to provide a crop of players capable of competing at the highest echelons of men’s tennis has long been a cause for embarrassment and amusement.
Before a scrawny, teenage Murray announced himself as a major talent by winning the U.S. Open juniors in 2004, Wimbledon nearly-man Tim Henman had shouldered the nation’s hopes year after year along with Canadian-born Greg Rusedski.
Henman grew up with a tennis court in his back garden and Rusedski on the other side of the Atlantic. Like Murray, they were not products of a failing system.
When Henman and Rusedski, a former U.S. Open runner-up, neared retirement, British tennis was staring at an alarming black hole. However, Murray’s mother and coach Judy had the courage and foresight to pack her son off to Barcelona aged 15 to acquire a proper tennis education.
Already blessed with a razor sharp tennis mind and a natural feel for ball on strings, it was at the Sanchez Vicario Academy that Murray honed the metronomic groundstrokes that did for Djokovic with thousands of hours of relentless hitting drills.
The fruits of that labour soon became apparent as Murray climbed 449 places in the world rankings after turning professional in 2005, reaching the third round of Wimbledon where he lost in five sets to Argentina’s David Nalbandian.
Yet, those early steps into the seniors were difficult ones.
Still growing into his 18-year-old frame, Murray’s physical conditioning was clearly lacking, while his messy hair and whiskers, dishevelled appearance and teenage scowl did not endear him to a British public still yearning for that “nice chap Tim” to come up trumps.
Not that Murray really cared.
Clearly prepared to go it alone, he focused all his energy on getting fitter and stronger, rather than indulging in popularity contests.
He hired, then fired, Andre Agassi’s former coach Brad Gilbert and surrounded himself with a team with whom he felt comfortable, headed by coach Miles Maclagan who came on board in 2007.
Murray reached his first grand slam final in 2008, losing to Roger Federer at Flushing Meadows.
He lost to Federer again in the 2010 Australian Open final and 12 months later fell to Djokovic, meaning that in his first three grand slam finals he had failed to win a single set – prompting unfair suggestions that he was too passive and “choked” when it came to the crunch.
When Djokovic, a few weeks younger than Murray, broke the grand slam domination of Federer and Rafa Nadal, culminating in the Serb’s incredible 2011 when he was almost unbeatable, the focus on Murray’s perceived under-achievement grew more intense.
Murray, who had dispensed with Maclagan’s services in 2010, responded by hiring Ivan Lendl at the start of 2012, the poker-faced Czech-born multiple grand slam champion who made a career out of winning titles rather than friends.
It has proved to be a masterstroke with Murray proving beyond doubt he is a bone-fide member of the “big four”.
Few doubted that Murray had what it took to break his grand slam duck but Lendl appears to have eradicated the demons that often haunted the Scot on the biggest of stages.
Murray became the first British man since Fred Perry to reach the Wimbledon final this year and his performance against Federer illustrated his new belief, even if it did end in tearful failure as the Swiss maestro battled back to victory after Murray had won the opening set.
The British public took Murray to their heart after that emotional defeat and he rewarded them a month later when he returned to the All England Club to beat Djokovic and then Federer on his way to Olympic gold.
Failure to back that up and beat Djokovic in the cauldron-like atmosphere on Arthur Ashe Stadium would have given more ammunition to the doubters.
When he surrendered the third and fourth sets to the rampaging Serb, it looked odds on that Murray would become the first man to lose his first five grand slam finals.
Instead, like a true champion, he found another gear to clinch a momentous five-hour triumph as the New York crowd roared its approval.
With the monkey finally off his back, Federer in the twilight of his career and Nadal’s knees creaking, 2013 promises even greater rewards for Murray whose rivalry with Djokovic is already shaping up to become one of the sport’s most entertaining.