Andy Murray The Last of the Big Four Becomes the Big One

Murray

Photo courtesy of Pegitboard News

The Big Four, the ATP’s marketing goldmine which branded the rivalries of its four most consistent players and created the conditions for them to dominate the game, took on new meaning on November 8th 2016 when the last of its members to hit the No 1 Spot, Andy Murray, finally became the Big One.

The Big Four defenders, in response to criticism that it was really the Big Three plus Andy Murray, have always argued the Big Four was not about Greatness but consistency.

However, now that Murray has applied his consistency in the game’s biggest events- he has reached the semis of 20 of the last 32  slams he has entered – to his year round ranking and reached No.1, the Big Four is now as much about the subjective topic of Greatness as it is about objective week in – week out results.

In becoming number one, Murray has gone from the elite circle of being one of tennis’ few multiple slam champions (there have been, including the man himself, 54 of them) to an even more elite one – the Scot is only the 26th player to become world No.1 in the ATP rankings since 1973, and with three slams on his resume, he has won more slams than ten of those men, and stands equal with Gustavo Kuerten (Kuerten was no.1 for 43 weeks, so Murray has some way to go to beat that record, but Murray’s additional 8 slam finals over Kuerten balance things out a little when it comes to who is greater? debates).

Tennis records are not always what they seem on the surface, however. There are plenty of names who won multiple slams and were the best in the game before the ATP No.1 ranking list was compiled (63 players, throughout the game’s history, have been ranked No.1 by either the ATP or by journalist’s annual rankings).

Kuerten also played in an era of, at times, wildly contrasting court surface speeds, from the mud of Hamburg to the ice rinks of Stuttgart, so, considering today’s surface homogenization, of which even Roger Federer has himself acknowledged,  there is plenty of contention when it comes to ranking one player over another.

But one thing that is not up for debate is that Murray, a no.1 player and a multiple slam champ, is up there with the best of them.

The long road up to that pinnacle is down to two factors. The first is Murray’s hard work and sacrifice, leaving his family in his early teens to train in Barcelona, and transforming both his body and mind from muscles vulnerable to stress and negativity to those worthy of a champion. The second is Murray’s ability to craft his versatile game to the ATP’s slower conditions. Murray, at his very best, is a versatile counter puncher, the type who can boast of eleven wins over Roger Federer, including his first ever win over the Swiss in Cincinnati, two wins over Djokovic in slam finals, and victories over Nadal at the US Open semis 2008 and the Madrid 2015 final.

Murray’s fine touch, net skills, counter punching, and creativity helped him climb up tennis’ rankings, and his athleticism and the ability to make his opponents play one more shot made sure he stayed there with a game which could win with flair and speed on the tour’s faster courts and grind it out with the best of them on its more common slower ones.

Those predominant medium slow courts were, over the last decade, designed to make the Big Four just that. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray were arguably the best players in the game, anyway from 2008 onward, but with the surfaces of events playing more alike, their skills thrived week in – week out, and where tennis’ spotlight shone the brightest, at the slams and ATP 1000s.

The subsequent confidence the quartet of Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray gained winning week in – week out, earned them a heavy advantage over their second tier rivals, and their prospective future rivals, and the ATP had what it wanted, and what it believed fans wanted, too- not just one big Rivalry, but six of them.

The confidence Murray gained from his consistent record and from being branded in the same breath as three of the game’s most decorated players eventually paid off when he finally won his first slam at the US Open 2012. That was when the Big Four started to become more than just a reference to the same four players competing in the final stages of tournaments- Murray was no longer ‘just’ one of a small elite circle of players who had competed in several slam finals and multiple semi-finals, he also had a trophy cabinet home to slam-winning silverware, and added another less than a year later, and not just any other, but Wimbledon.

As much, however, as surface homogenization helped Murray rack up ranking points, it also hurt him – as the weeks playing strenuous rallies across the globe piled up, a back injury, which started to aggravate him before his Wimbledon ’13 win, saw him slide down the rankings at a time when he held two of the game’s biggest titles, Wimbledon and the US Open.

Murray’s injury at an age most greats are past their peak did not, fortunately for the Scot, matter in the Big Four era of tennis. The slower courts have also extended the shelf life of the ATP’s four biggest products, with Roger Federer still competing for slams in his mid-30s, compensating for the loss of a step or two, and giving the Big Four’s second tier rivals and potential usurpers an extra millisecond to think, to make the kind of snap decisions which, on big points, can undo the inexperienced.

Those slower career extending conditions meant Murray had time on his side as he endured a miserable 2014, and time did its job, healing his injury. Refusing to give up, a quality champions and world No.1s have in common, Murray came back to reach the 2015 Australian Open final, climb back to No.2 in the rankings and win his first ever clay court title in Munich, following it up with another in Madrid.  That clay court development was a crucial one with Murray’s 2016 clay court performances  racking up 3,160 of the 11,185 points he currently has on his No.1 ranking.

For much of his time as world No.2 and 3 in 2015, Murray received heavy criticism as he proved to be an ineffective rival to Djokovic, suffering one heavy defeat to his former Junior rival, and now senior one, after another in big matches. Finally, though, his versatility and counter punching came into its own in the 2015 Canadian Open final against Djokovic, and at this year’s Italian Open, when tennis was crying out for Murray to make a real rivalry out of it, he defeated the world No.1 in straight sets, and with conviction. 

That win boosted tennis temporarily, but did not translate into Murray breaking the spell Djokovic had cast over him in Slam finals. After adding another slam runner-up plate, his first at Roland Garros, and his 8th overall, to his collection, Murray trailed the world No.1 and his French Open conqueror by 8000 points, or two grand slams and four ATP 1000 titles.

That deficit seemed too much to cut anytime soon, but, just a few weeks later, Murray found himself as the favorite at Wimbledon when Djokovic was upset by Sam Querrey. Murray had never been the favorite at a slam before, and the last remaining Big Four player in the world’s biggest tennis event took full advantage of his new status.

Murray’s years of experience of both victory and defeat on the game’s biggest stages, his consistency, athleticism, self belief, and versatility all proved too much for the likes of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, and first time grand slam finalist Milos Raonic on the Scot’s road to his third Grand Slam trophy.

To the background of the tennis world’s chatter concerning his chances of reaching No.1 in the next few months, Murray wobbled in New York when burst speakers disturbed him versus Kei Nishikori and he slipped into his old bad habits of letting his frustration slip over into his body language and attitude, and giving himself, and ultimately the match, away.

The Scot got himself back together, however, when he replaced Djokovic as the man to beat in the final stretch of the season. Armed with a much stronger second serve, his biggest weakness now another strength, Murray stepped in to Djokovic’s shoes and stepped up to the challenge of taking the Serb’s world No.1 ranking, winning Beijing, Shanghai, Vienna and then Paris.

Murray only faced one top ten opponent in that stretch, one in which typically many pros are fatigued and less motivated after nine months on a grueling tour, and he finally grabbed the final points he needed to get the No.1 ranking without hitting a ball when Milos Raonic withdrew from their semi-final in Paris, the Canadian’s body letting him down once more in a career that has suffered in the slow conditions of today’s ATP tour as much as Murray’s has thrived. That, though, has been Murray’s strength – in the ATP’s survival of the fittest, he, like the rest of the Big Four, has been one of the last men standing.  With Federer, Nadal and Djokovic all struggling with injury, Murray has now become the last man standing, the last of the Big Four to become the Big One, the last of them to become both consistent and Great at once.

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Christian Deverille

Christian Deverille is a tennis writer with a diploma in Freelance Sports Writing from the London School of Journalism. He loves all things tennis, most of all the Federer and del Potro forehands.
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