Climb Every Mountain

Climb every mountain,
Search high and low,
Follow every byway,
Every path you know.
Climb every mountain,
Ford every stream,
Follow every rainbow,
‘Till you find your dream.

The worst years of my life were 2003 through 2005. In 2003, I suffered from runaway blood pressure (200 over 120) and had to go to the hospital. Being dumb, I stopped eating… literally… in the two weeks after that first hospital visit, losing 30 pounds and destroying my body’s sense of equilibrium. The disruptions to my body created a sense of pure panic about my situation, which — combined with some stressors in the theater of real life (a published book was not selling at all; the Iraq War was spiraling out of control; the website I was writing for took a financial hit; you know, nothing big…) — led to a series of anxiety attacks that lasted for 18 months, into 2005. I had, in April of 2003, doubted my body’s physical ability to survive. Then, my emotions fell apart.

On the morning of May 1, 2005, I visited an inmate at a jail in downtown Seattle. The experience was so chilling that, when I walked across the bridge linking downtown with a just-out-side-of-downtown neighborhood in Seattle, I looked over the railing and suddenly realized why people check out of life. Death felt very close. No, there was no desire to bail out, but the closeness and immediacy of the opportunity to do so possessed my waking thoughts for much of the next five years. It wasn’t until 2011 that this persistent awareness of the oppressiveness of life for some people finally receded into the subconscious and slid out of the forefront of my mind.

I doubted myself physically. Then I doubted myself emotionally. Then I was shaken to my core in a larger spiritual and existential manner. It took me several years to sort things out in my head.

No, tennis is not a life-and-death pursuit (it only feels that way), but the journey Andrew Murray has taken to get to the mountaintop is something I can definitely relate to.

What Murray did on Monday in Flushing Meadows, New York, was the culmination of a life spent in tennis, but more specifically, a journey that was four years in the making. The fact that his coach’s career arc as a player so strongly paralleled his own path makes Murray’s moment of triumph that much more remarkable… and impressive.

You know the story about Ivan Lendl, the man who has clearly given Murray the extra insights into the inner game of tennis, the insights that his pupil has steadily absorbed, bit by bit. Lendl made his first major final in 1981 at Roland Garros, losing to Bjorn Borg. Lendl not only lost major finals in the next few years; Jimmy Connors showed him just how much he had to improve in order to lift one of the sport’s most precious trophies. It took a good long while for Lendl to figure out the unique beast known as a major tournament final.

The sense of internal exasperation Lendl felt after meekly submitting to defeat in the fourth set (a bagel) of the 1983 U.S. Open final against Connors was every bit as strong as the exasperation Murray felt after his loss to Novak Djokovic in the 2011 Australian Open final. In 2008 and 2010, Murray had lost hardcourt major finals to Roger Federer; in those matches, Federer’s form and shotmaking were simply too good on the day. In the 2011 Australian final, Djokovic enjoyed superior form in his own right, but there was a sense that Murray wasn’t entirely present for long stretches of that particular encounter. Psychologically, Murray hit a wall, and although he did continue to reveal how gifted he was in 2011 by making one major semifinal after another, he never came particularly close to beating Rafael Nadal, the man who conquered him in three straight majors.

Murray knew he had to climb so many more miles in worn shoes, accessing levels of mental freshness and bone-deep belief he could not yet fully trust. Murray could not yet trust everything about (and within) himself because, as was the case with Lendl in 1983, a talented athlete didn’t yet know the sensation of clearing that last hurdle, of scaling that last jagged piece of rock and standing on the summit.

Then came the 2012 Australian Open, the event that marked the beginning of Murray’s slow movement up the mountain… closer to his ultimate goal, yes, but also in more rarefied air, subject to more difficult breathing… and the possibility of a more pronounced fall from grace, a more spectacular wound, a more gruesome death.

Murray, having just hired Lendl as his coach, led Djokovic two sets to one in the 2012 Australian Open semifinals. He had not yet beaten Djokovic in a major tournament, and was so close to the kind of breakthrough he needed in order to transform his mindset. Yet, he discovered just how much that mindset had to be reshaped. He stepped off the gas pedal in the fourth set, and before he knew it, Djokovic was serving for the match in the fifth set. Murray broke the Serb and leveled for 5-all. He even had a break point for a chance to serve for the match, but Djokovic — as he did throughout 2011 and again at Roland Garros this past year — stepped up on the big points. Murray walked away with honor… and a 7-5 defeat in the final set.

The top of the mountain was closer, but how does that familiar saying go? “So close, and yet so far away.” Onward Murray climbed up the steep rock of men’s tennis in this golden era, learning about himself while under Lendl’s tutelage.

Then came the next treacherous portion of Murray’s journey. He finally made the final at Wimbledon, the tournament where this son of Great Britain faces overwhelming pressure and stands in a white-hot public spotlight. He played quite well against Federer, but he couldn’t find an extra gear (particularly on his serve) in crunch-time moments. The quality of his performance offered nothing but hope; yet, the acute pain of losing in his backyard tournament could have sent him slipping and sliding down the mountain, further removed from that damned mountaintop, a peak that remained elusive despite his marked improvements under Lendl.

At this U.S. Open, Murray performed the way he had performed in the event over the past three years: inconsistently. Having lost to Marin Cilic in 2009 and to Stanislas Wawrinka in 2010, Murray wobbled in 2011 as well, but in his first-week “bad match” — a disturbingly regular occurrence for him in New York — he managed to escape Robin Haase. In 2012, Murray dodged Feliciano Lopez in a grueling third-round match; had Lopez won the fourth-set tiebreaker, Murray would have played over five hours in broiling afternoon sunshine. He needed to get off that court, on that day, in four sets, and he barely made the finish line. In the quarterfinals, Murray was staring at another New York loss to Cilic before the Croatian spectacularly imploded. As the semifinals arrived, there was no assurance — none at all — that Murray was ready to take the next step.

Then came the moment when this tortured tennis soul — the one who berated himself and questioned his own toughness, much as Ivan Lendl did from 1981 through early 1984 — began the final ascent, inhabiting an environment in which the oxygen was that much more difficult to take in at every step.

Murray’s tennis lungs did not breathe easily in the first set of his semifinal against Tomas Berdych. It would have been typical for Murray to curse the darkness after he gave away the first set (he had carried the run of play for most of it). In a pre-Lendl world, he probably would have done just that. Instead, Murray regrouped.

Then, after Berdych showed some toughness (yes, he really did… it was a time-capsule moment… we’ll see if Berdych can actually live up to his enormous abilities in 2013…), Murray was staring at the possibility of a fifth set, down 2-5 in the fourth-set tiebreaker. Calmly — yes, Murray was calm, if you can possibly believe it — the third seed won the next three points and eventually took the tiebreak to punch his ticket to the U.S. Open final.

Murray’s first major final was in New York in 2008. That U.S. Open marked the only prior time in which he had defeated one of the Big Three (Nadal) at a major in a full-length match. (He defeated Nadal in the 2010 Australian Open quarterfinals, but Nadal retired early in the third set.) The U.S. Open was also the tournament where his coach, Lendl, had excelled to a considerable degree, making eight straight finals from 1982 through 1989. Given that the U.S. Open is Murray’s favorite major, it was the perfect place to end his drought on the big stage. In his fifth major final, Murray was in position to do exactly what Lendl had done his own fifth major final, the 1984 French Open epic against John McEnroe.

When Lendl fell behind two sets to love, the Czech could have lamented the course of events and resigned himself to the thought that his drought at the majors would persist. Instead, Lendl kept climbing that mountain; he didn’t abandon the mission.

It’s true that Murray won the first two sets instead of losing them on Monday against Novak Djokovic, but when the Serb — the man who came from two sets down to beat Federer in the 2011 U.S. Open semifinals (I had to go there, Fed fans… 😦 — ramped up his game and figured out the gusting winds inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, there was Murray, cursing bluestreaks in front of courtside microphones, telling the world how jelly-legged he was.

Djokovic was pouring out as much energy as possible, defending with typical relentlessness, dexterity and willpower. In two authoritative sets, Djokovic — who could have easily faded into the mist following his all-for-naught performance in the first two sets — had forced Andy Murray to face the final climb, the moment that would either make him or break him, the moment that would either lead to the greatest glory or the most precipitous fall from a lofty position.

Imagine the maelstrom of emotions Murray had to filter from his inner being at the fifth-set changeover. Murray had made major finals before. He had won one set in a major final (against Federer at Wimbledon). He had gone five sets with Djokovic at a major, but lost. He had at last won two sets in a major final. The closer Murray stood in relationship to the goal he so dearly wanted, the more Murray knew (he straightforwardly acknowledged this in his post-match comments, too…) that a loss, now a strong possibility, could have hurt beyond all imagining. A loss after leading by two sets in a major final would have made the pain of his Wimbledon defeat seem like a tiny pin prick. A loss in THIS situation would have crushed Murray’s bones, sucking the marrow of life out of his body.

Djokovic, no matter what else Federer fans might think about him (I choose to admire him, but I know not everyone shares the same outlook… mileage does vary…), forced Murray to realize, more than ever before, how hard it is to win one’s first major singles championship.

Murray had doubted himself physically and mentally on many occasions in the past. The grabbing of the back, the touching of the toes, and other nervous tics revealed the symbiotic body-mind relationship that athletes must learn about and adjust to. In that fifth set against Djokovic, however, Murray was presented — not for the first time, but with more urgency than at any point in the past — a truly spiritual challenge. This match was not just about the body or the mind. It became a matter of heart.

Djokovic, even in the process of winning the third and fourth sets, worked harder than Murray because he was much less comfortable in the windy conditions. Murray, unsurprisingly, was much more adept at blocking balls back in the wind and forcing Djokovic to hit through the wind. The fact that Djokovic had also spilled more energy in the first two sets meant that Murray was capable of outlasting his gallant foe. Mental toughness was surely required in that fifth set, but what Murray also needed was that pinch of passion, that ability to fill his mind not with thoughts of what was slipping away, but what was still attainable and very much within his grasp.

You know how the story ended. Murray’s body language — which had been negative in the final set of each of his previous four major finals — became noticeably positive in that fifth set. He persevered. He fought. He won. He won against an opponent who forced him to tap into every last ounce of belief he owned… and measures of self-trust he didn’t know he had when he stepped onto the court four hours and 54 minutes earlier.

First had come the physical and mental challenges. Then came the supreme spiritual and existential challenges, with each step of the journey becoming more fraught with ecstasy and destruction in equal measure. Andy Murray moved closer to both triumph and disaster on an unforgettable Monday night in New York. The fact that he had to work so hard to climb the mountain speaks to the quality of this spectacular era in men’s tennis.

The fact that Murray succeeded in the climb says so much about the champion he now in fact is, the champion he — with Ivan Lendl’s help — has finally become.

About Matt Zemek

Sportswriter, political writer, tennis commentator... and more.

5 responses to “Climb Every Mountain”

  1. Cali says :

    it really is a spectacular era in men’s tennis! Lucky us

  2. patzin says :

    well said, thank you.

  3. adele says :

    excellent Matt, I was happy for Murray, like to see ech athlete reach full potential, few do, but always admire that. You are a mountaineeer too, so glad you made it. In Andy’s case, in my mind, his panic arose from having survived the massacre at his school. Survivor’s guilt, but players do not have the luxury of taking a few years to climb the mountains underneath, so all the more Kudos to them, Roger has climbed a few, too, who get it done another way. Thanks so much for writing this. Off to alert my hubby and freinds to read you, today. Have a good one!

  4. Ramesh (@zbrain) says :

    “I doubted myself physically. Then I doubted myself emotionally. Then I was shaken to my core in a larger spiritual and existential manner. It took me several years to sort things out in my head”

    As wonderful as your writing is Matt, nothing else in this post got me more this paragraph. What they say is very true, the darkest hour is just before the dawn (I’ve been there too). I’m happy to see that you’ve connected with your spiritual self, and have found your life’s purpose.

    Oh, and BTW, congratulations to Muzz for finally scaling the mountain!

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