The Weight Of Nations, The Weight Of Notions
For the second straight summer at Centre Court, Andy Murray prevailed in straight sets on a sun-baked Sunday afternoon against a player worn down by Juan Martin del Potro in a marathon-length semifinal. Last year’s Olympic gold medal match against Roger Federer and today’s Wimbledon final against Novak Djokovic felt very similar — they ended in the same amount of sets, after all. However, the Olympics are a once-every-four-year tournament with a best-of-three-set format until the championship match. Wimbledon, on the other hand, is a five-set tournament, and a tournament whose shadows cover the whole of tennis history.
Wimbledon carries the weight of nations and the weight of notions. Wimbledon is where tennis began. It’s where the sport’s cathedral stands. It’s where the sport’s original surface — now its most infrequently used surface — creates a tournament that feels more vulnerable than the other three majors.
This vulnerability has given rise to the demons and ghosts that have haunted tennis players for decades… especially those who represent the United Kingdom.
Even though the grass of Wimbledon today is more resilient — and therefore more conducive to long hardcourt-style rallies — than it used to be, it still holds true that opportunities come and go more quickly on this surface. A low, knifing slice can still do more damage on grass than on other surfaces. A flat serve will still skid through the court with more speed than on a slow hardcourt. Late in a grass-court tournament, a strong return hit just inside the baseline will often draw a bad bounce off the worn and chewed-up second-week playing surface. Opportunities feel a little more fragile on grass compared to other surfaces, creating more agony for a player and a fan base when an opening is missed.
This dynamic expresses, in microcosm, what the United Kingdom has felt in the world of men’s tennis. Tim Henman owned a brief window of opportunity in 2001, but Goran Ivanisevic (and Mother Nature, which sent a rain delay just when Henman was taking control in the third set) promptly closed that window. Andy Murray seemed to have the upper hand entering the 2009 Wimbledon semifinals, but Andy Roddick — in his last great major-tournament performance — wrested the match and the moment from Murray’s hands. Murray ran into a superior Rafael Nadal in 2010 and 2011, but in 2012, he reached the Wimbledon final and took the first set against Roger Federer, 6-4. Murray then encountered a break point late in the second set, but a passing shot (a running down-the-line forehand from the deuce corner) just barely missed.
That opportunity came and went, and before Murray knew it, he entered a rain delay early in the third set with Federer in control of the proceedings. Wimbledon, the one tournament Murray wanted to win more than any other in the world, slipped through his grasp.
Yes, he won the Olympics. Yes, he won the U.S. Open in windy conditions against a bothered Novak Djokovic. Yet, the weight of a nation — and a notion — remained perched on his shoulders.
The United Kingdom is used to losing in tennis (and international football) in much the same way Chicago Cub fans are used to losing in baseball. There is always hope and hunger and enthusiasm, but underneath lies the expectation that SOMETHING is going to go wrong and shatter decades worth of pent-up dreams and longings, precisely when the finish line appears in sight. The winner of the first set of the past three Djokovic-Murray matches had LOST the match, so when Murray broke for a 6-5 lead in the second set, the notion that the match was his was far from secure. Djokovic has climbed out of so many ditches over the past three years, playing his best and most inspired tennis precisely when on the precipice of trouble, that Murray’s moment of apparent prosperity could have become the seed of his greatest collapse and career disappointment. Murray’s track record as a superb player — but an “almost player” (1-5 in major finals entering this match) — only added to the sense that nothing was certain in this Wimbledon final until the last point ran its course.
This is what the weight of nations — and notions — does to players, fans and journalists, to all human beings who observe a particular sport.
Murray did serve out the second set, but when he blew a 2-0 lead in the third and fell behind, 4-2, that weight actually seemed to increase. When Murray lost three match points on serve after reaching 5-4, 40-love, in the third set, the enormity of Murray’s burden grew larger still.
A few weeks ago at Roland Garros, your Picket Fence guest blogger talked about how playing with a lead is often the toughest task in tennis. This reality became magnified throughout Wimbledon, and it very nearly toppled Marion Bartoli in the women’s final on Saturday. Bartoli didn’t begin to play poorly (and Sabine Lisicki didn’t begin to play well) until the match was about to be won. Bartoli needed to win a dramatic first point at 5-4 in the second set in order to avoid losing a 5-1 lead and her hold on her first Wimbledon title.
Murray, when facing break points at 5-4 in the third, could see the same abyss.
Though up two sets and a break and standing so close to the finish line, Murray knew that he was so close to facing a fresh wave of demons… the ones that emerge when a player serves for a first-ever Wimbledon title and fails in the attempt. The enormity of the prize, so close to one’s grasp, can unleash an especially potent form of psychological torture on an athlete if that prize isn’t snatched on the first try.
Don’t doubt that Andy Murray didn’t recognize this bigger picture. (The same dynamic applied to Bartoli yesterday when she toed the service line at 5-4.)
Yes, it is true that Djokovic — who looked as though he had been drained by Delpo, Murray’s accomplice in his two great Centre Court triumphs over the past 11 months — fed Murray some cheap points. Yes, it is true that Djokovic was unable to tee off on enough Murray second serves to make a difference in this match. Yes, Djokovic didn’t win a single set. Yet, the weight Murray carried at 5-4 in the third was unmistakably enormous. You could argue that Murray faced a moment of equal weight in the 2012 U.S. Open final against Djokovic, and you’d have a perfectly valid point.
Yet, Wimbledon — especially for a player who carries the banner of the host nation — can acquire a weight that falls more heavily upon the human mind.
If Murray shrugged off 76 years of history in the United Kingdom when he won the 2012 U.S. Open, he had to carry 77 years at Wimbledon on Sunday. When one realizes how deeply Murray ached after his 2012 Wimbledon loss, it was not (and is not) unreasonable to claim that this match carried more weight than his U.S. Open final against Djokovic.
The first major is typically the toughest major any tennis player has to win. Judged solely by the number of sets Andy Murray needed against Djokovic, this point remains substantially true, even empirically so.
Yet, Wimbledon carries an added amount of weight. It has that ability to do so.
The fact that Murray was able to climb that final mountain, to respond with mentally strong tennis precisely when Djokovic lifted his game and stood on the verge of an improbable yet not-that-improbable “we’ve seen this movie before” comeback, makes this moment so redemptive and transformative for his career.
Murray could have retired with that U.S. Open title and known he had achieved something substantial in his career, but Murray wouldn’t have slept the sleep of a perfectly contented tennis player unless or until he won Wimbledon.
That’s the weight of a nation… and a notion… at work.
And so, as Murray’s historic feat sinks in, one must marvel at the way one match in this Golden Era of men’s tennis carries so much weight.
It seemed as though the weight of the world rested on Roger Federer’s shoulders in both the 2006 Roland Garros final and the 2006 Wimbledon final against Rafael Nadal. The outcomes of those matches seemed to mean so much in the scope of tennis history.
The 2008 Wimbledon final meant so much for Nadal in his pursuit of Federer, greatness, and the prestige of winning Wimbledon.
The 2009 Australian Open final permanently and substantially changed the way Rafael Nadal’s career on non-clay surfaces was and is (and will be) perceived.
The 2009 Roland Garros final (this notion has turned out to be accurate in the fullness of time) felt like Federer’s one and only chance to win a major on red clay. Had he lost that match to Robin Soderling, how remarkably different his career would seem today.
The 2009 Wimbledon final was Andy Roddick’s last chance, and given the prowess of Murray, Djokovic and Nadal right now, the 2009 U.S. Open final might wind up being Juan Martin del Potro’s only major final.
The 2011 Wimbledon final could be seen in retrospect as Nadal’s last big chance to win that tournament (though I’d bet money that Nadal will regroup and make at least one more Wimbledon final if not two).
The 2011 U.S. Open final gave Djokovic three majors in one year and dramatically elevated his place in the history of the sport.
The 2012 Australian Open final cruelly snatched from Nadal a second Australian title, one that will be hard for him to attain.
The 2012 Roland Garros final — like the 2013 Roland Garros semifinal — denied Djokovic a chance for a calendar year Grand Slam, the kind of opportunity that just doesn’t come along very often. Those matches also secured Nadal’s place as the greatest clay-court player who has ever acquired human form.
The 2012 Wimbledon final could very well become Federer’s last best (well-used) chance to claim a major. Murray then turned the 2012 U.S. Open into his landmark moment, and he’s done much the same at Wimbledon in 2013.
Let’s look at today’s match in order to appreciate how much one match changes the realities of records and legacies, with some of those changes being permanent and others much more temporary.
HAD DJOKOVIC WON….
… he would have owned multiple titles at two of the four majors. At seven majors, the likelihood of winning at least 10 majors would have skyrocketed. He would have owned two of the last three Wimbledons and, accordingly, the stature of a player who had been able to affirm superiority over the rest of men’s tennis on his weakest surface.
Had Djokovic won, Murray would have been 1-6 in major finals. His only win would have come on a day when Djokovic manifestly struggled with windy conditions in New York. Murray would have lost two straight Wimbledon finals to players other than Nadal, his foremost nemesis among the Big Four. He would have failed to win Wimbledon in a year when he received as good a path through seven matches as one possibly could have hoped for. The British tabloids would have unfairly said, “If he couldn’t win THIS YEAR, he’ll never do it!” Yet, the weight of a nation — and a notion — could have taken root in Murray’s mind.
INSTEAD, though… Murray DID win.
Because of this result:
1) Djokovic, as truly spectacular as he’s been in his career — especially over the past three years — has won only one major tournament more than once (the Australian Open).
2) Flowing from point number one, Djokovic has won more than once at the only major which plays a nighttime final. (In other words, Nole has won more than once at the only major where he is able to sleep with his girlfriend throughout the course of a semifinal and final. PS — It was cloudy, not sunny, when Djokovic beat Nadal in the 2011 Wimbledon final.)
3) Djokovic has won only one major on a non-hardcourt surface.
None of those details are intended to knock or diminish what Djokovic has done — anything but. When one realizes the extent to which Djokovic has busted through the Federer-Nadal stronghold to become the clear No. 1 player in men’s tennis, one marvels at the extent of his willpower, his defense, his full supply of resources. For the record, he STILL is likely to win 10 majors, which — if he gets there — will very likely make him (on the day he eventually retires) one of the 10 greatest male tennis players to ever live. Yet, those three facts mentioned above are instructive in that they underscore something very fundamental about tennis: Winning majors is really really hard over the collection of three surfaces (four if you make a distinction between Australian plexicushion and New York DecoTurf). Federer, of course, has won only one clay major, and Nadal has won only twice on hardcourt. Djokovic is not immune to the limitations imposed by an opponent (Nadal on clay) or a surface (grass) that has not brought out his best tennis in late-stage matches of most non-hardcourt majors.
In light of what’s just been said about Djokovic — and how winning majors is so genuinely difficult — we are brought back to the focus of this piece: Andy Murray absorbed — and then threw off — the weight of a nation and a notion today. The fact that he had to look at Federer, then Nadal, then Djokovic… and find a way to win two majors on two different surfaces, especially in the cauldron of Wimbledon pressure… makes his career that much more special. It’s a career which now owns a measure of completeness it did not possess 24 long hours ago.
The weights of nations — and notions — change so substantially in individual matches and moments.
Especially at The Championships.