Tennis at the Olympics and Murray’s gigantic mental step
How many of you remember that Nicolas Massu won gold in men’s singles tennis at the 2004 Olympics in Athens? Unless you’re a trivia freak or a Chilean, I suspect you don’t. Tennis and the Olympic Games make for an awkward combination. When you think of Suzanne Lenglen and her legacy, you don’t think of her gold medal in the 1920 Antwerp Games; you think of her eight grand slam victories. When you think of Pete Sampras, you think of his fourteen grand slam titles; not that he failed to win an Olympic medal. But in recent years, particularly on the back of Rafael Nadal’s victory in Beijing and his magnetic, alluring rivalry with Roger Federer (who had until today failed to win a singles medal), tennis has taken on a far higher stature at the Games. And this year, with the event being staged on the consecrated grass of Wimbledon, it was infused with a great dash of grandeur. Yet there was this nagging feeling that the sport didn’t really belong at the Olympics. Aren’t the Games supposed to be the pinnacle for each of its events? A gold medal, as valued and cherished as it may be, still won’t equate to a grand slam triumph for most tennis players. Then why is the sport there? Aren’t we somehow devaluing the achievements of Missy Franklin and Jessica Ennis by awarding a medal to a tennis player that wouldn’t fulfill his or her highest ambitions?
After his victory over Federer in the men’s singles final, Andy Murray evaded John McEnroe’s question on whether he’d trade his gold medal for a grand slam triumph with as much deftness as he showed with the placement on his backhands on Sunday. He said something on these lines: “Now that I have this, I’d like to win the U.S. Open.” I am not suggesting here that Murray doesn’t value his gold medal. He was ecstatic with his performance in the final; the win clearly meant a lot to him—tears of despair from three weeks ago at Wimbledon were transformed into tears of joy. The emotions were real and Murray along with hordes of British fans will treasure this victory in the years to come.
An argument may even be made that though tennis made a return to the Olympics only in 1984 after a 60-year gap, with the top players now taking the event seriously it could become a genuine marquee event at the Games, but come Rio when the sport is back on the clay courts, I doubt it will generate as much interest as this past week at London did. Tennis needs not the occasion of an Olympics to generate interest, but a venue of importance. The Games on the other hand will retain significance regardless of which city is chosen as its host.
Yet, Murray’s victory is seminal not merely because a triumph in the sport’s most famous arena will add sheen to his achievements, but because it could set him on the path to carve out a legacy that he endeavours to create. Just as his victory in the Davis Cup Final in 2010 set Novak Djokovic onto one of tennis’ most remarkable winning streaks, Murray’s performance at the London Games could set the platform for greater success. For Murray it has never been a case of a lack of talent—before his Wimbledon final this year against Federer he held a winning head-to-head record against the Swiss. Yet he came a cropper every time he played Federer in a grand slam contest. At the Wimbledon final a few weeks back, he started the match with a bang, yet faded like a withering flower. Here, however, he was imperious, earning his first victory in a best of five sets match against Federer. The pressure of the occasion was unequivocal, but Murray stood steadfast; he swarmed Federer’s backhand wing with a focus that never wavered. He moved with exquisite precision and pummeled his groundstrokes with remarkable accuracy, angle and pace. When he’s at his best, Murray’s movement is peerless—none of the others in the top four possess the nous that he displays in covering the rectangle. But, apart from serving as a magnificent display of his talents, more importantly Murray, perhaps, proved to himself that he is capable of beating the best players on the big occasions (even though this was merely an illusory big occasion). After his heartbreaking defeat to Djokovic at the Australian Open semifinal earlier this year—a match in which he came close to toppling the Serb—I wondered, “If the rivalry at the top of men’s tennis could become even more implausibly grand.” I think now we may well be heralding a new era, one in which Murray will go into the latter stages of a grand slam as a genuine, unmistakable threat.