Major-less Andy Murray carried the tennis flag for Britain at their home Olympics. With the tennis being held on the hallowed turf of Wimbledon – could he add to the growing British medal tally?
When Jonny Wilkinson kicked England to victory in the 2003 Rugby World Cup, I boldly declared that it was the start of a golden age of British sporting success. Back in 2003, a tweet was the noise a bird made and “facebook” was merely a strange collection of two words, hence this declaration was only heard by my family with even them thinking it a little absurd. By the time the London 2012 Olympics finished, I believe that my claim had been justified. I’m not good at predictions and I won’t pretend that this was a formulated guess using evidence of growing grassroots prospects who could be beating the world in nine years time, it was merely lucky – that being said, I am still proud of it! Over the next few years Britain were competitive in almost every sport, including the English cricket teams march to the top of the world, a handful of incredibly talented golfers, a couple of brothers dominating the triathlon circuit, strong showings in hockey world cups and an unprecedented success at the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics. Most places you looked, Britain had a top athlete competing with the best with football being the main disappointment on the international stage. However, England still boasts the most watched league in the world, despite its negative connotations for football in this country. One man epitomised this rise in many ways; he was competing in one of the strongest eras since his sport started and was coming mighty close to winning majors.
In 2012, and I was trying so hard to not write about this but it is just impossible not to, Andy Murray lost the Wimbledon final in 4 sets to Roger Federer. This was Murray’s fourth Grand Slam final and his fourth loss, although the first time he had won a set. He was actually the better player for 95% of the first two sets, with only a concentration lapse costing him the second. The loss was hard to take, emphasised by the tears on centre court and his fans, which I class myself among, feared another downturn in form such as the one we saw after the 2011 loss at the Australian to Djokovic. While that dip in form only resulted in early losses at Masters Tournaments’, another one here would almost certainly end his hope of winning an Olympic medal in his home country. The pressure was on for Murray to raise his game once more. In the Olympics, there are three medals available: Gold, Silver and Bronze. Some sports such as boxing share the bronze medal between the losing semi-finalists but tennis isn’t like this, there is a match to decide the bronze medallist. Murray was ranked 4th in the world at the time, with only two greats in Federer and Nadal as well as the incredible athlete Djokovic ahead of him, meaning that he would, in theory, have to beat one of them in order to win a medal. As it happened Nadal pulled out of the tournament with an injury that would sideline him for the rest of the year, however even before this I was convinced Murray would win a medal, I just didn’t know which colour. In fact, I’d had that same feeling for at least a couple of years previous to the tournament; the stars just seemed to be aligned. One of the most ridiculous reasons I see people give for why they don’t like Murray is that he hates the English, starting after a joke he made on the radio, and I saw the Olympics as a perfect opportunity to reinforce that he was British and not solely Scottish, although in reality – that level of nonsense probably doesn’t matter to him.
This seems like a good time to talk about tennis, especially at the Olympics, in more detail. Male tennis players either play best of 3 sets or best of 5 sets. The 5 set version is used at the Grand Slam tournaments, the Davis Cup ties where the result matters and the final of the Olympics. This means that the Olympics is a best of 3 set tournament until you reach the final, with the reason being, I presume, that the tournament can be completed quickly while at least making sure the winner is deserving. It is much easier to cause an upset over 3 sets than over 5, which is why few men from outside the top 10 win major titles. Tennis hasn’t been an ever present at the Summer Olympics, as in 1924 there was a dispute between the two governing bodies meaning that, despite it being featured since the rebirth of the Olympics, it was scrapped until 1988 when it has been played ever since. While Great Britain were the dominant team in the early stint, winning 39 medals between 1896 and 1924, they had only won 1 medal since the re-introduction (a silver in the 1996’s men doubles team of Neil Broad and Tim Henman). There was immense pressure on Murray to add to that tally in 2012, although pressure really wasn’t a new thing in his career! The 2012 tournament was notable for two things: first of all, it was being held at Wimbledon meaning that for the first time the court surface used would be grass and secondly, it was the first time since 1924 that mixed doubles would be a medal event – more on that later.
Murray was definitely competing in the singles and the men’s doubles (with his brother Jamie), as well as possibly appearing in the mixed doubles should he find a partner. The Opening Ceremony was held on the 27th July, with the first tennis matches taking place on the 28th; hence the only tennis players at the ceremony were the flag bearers. The hunt for medals didn’t start in the best fashion when Andy and Jamie lost their first round match in the doubles to Austrian pair Melzer and Peya. Murray played his first singles match a day later, on the 29th, with a tough tie against the Swiss flag bearer, Stan Wawrinka. Wawrinka had played Murray in the first full match under the roof on centre court a few years earlier and took him to five sets; hence there was no way that Murray would be underestimating him! It was possibly the duty of carrying Switzerland’s flag that hindered Wawrinka, or maybe that Murray was so fired up he made Wawrinka look ordinary – whatever it was, Murray cruised into the next round by winning 3&3. This meant that he had already advanced past the stage he reached at the last Olympics’, when he lost to Lu in the first round. Two days after his win against Wawrinka, Murray returned to Centre Court to beat Jarkko Nieminen 2&4 in even more convincing fashion than his win against Wawrinka. Without breaking into a sweat, Andy Murray had cruised into the third round where it was very possible he would face his first challenge, in the form of Marcos Baghdatis. The pair had met just a few weeks previously at Wimbledon, where Baghdatis had given Murray a 4 set scare in the third round. With the Olympics match-up being a best of 3 sets, there was every chance that there could have been an upset. That upset looked on the cards when Baghdatis took the first set 6-4, playing some wonderful tennis while Murray looked a little off colour. Murray started to turn on the style during the next two sets, he found his rhythm and Baghdatis started to make mistakes, allowing Murray to win. The final score-line read 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 and the match was vital as Murray gained some much needed match sharpness. Meanwhile Federer, Del Potro and Djokovic booked their spots in the semi finals with wins over Isner, Nishikori and Tsonga respectively. Murray promptly joined them when, on Thursday 2nd August, he dismissed Almagro 6-1, 6-4. The match was a bit of a non contest because Almagro was struggling with injury and Murray is a far superior player on grass. Novak Djokovic was the only man between Murray and a guaranteed medal, and on Friday 3rd August 2012 they faced each other for the first time on grass. Both sets were tight but neither went to a tie-break as Murray always broke at the right time, winning 7-5, 7-5. Murray was guaranteed a medal, but whether it would be Gold or Silver would be decided on Sunday.
This would be a good time to mention the mixed doubles, and leave you in suspense as to the result of the singles final, as the day before the Djokovic semi final, Murray started his campaign. He was partnering British number 2 Laura Robson, whom he has specifically chosen to play with – something that caused annoyance with British number 1 Heather Watson. For the record, I always thought that he was right to go with Robson. The two had played mixed doubles tournaments for GB before and the mixed styles suited each other well. Robson’s left handed serve and aggressive shots complemented Murray well. In mixed doubles, it is best of three sets however the third set is a champions tie-break – that being a tie-break where instead of first to 7 points (or 2 points clear), it becomes first to 10. They won their first round match 7-5, 6-7, 10-7 against the Czech pair Hradecka and Stepanek, which meant Murray and Robson progressed to the quarter finals as there were only 16 pairs in the draw. The quarter final match up was with Australian pairing Hewitt and Stosur, who were one of the favourites for the title given that they both have doubles pedigree. Rain and scheduling delays had meant that the match wouldn’t take place until Saturday, with the final being held on Sunday. Therefore, if they wanted to win a medal – Murray and Robson would have to play 3 matches in 2 days. They won the first, by beating the Australian pair 6-3, 3-6, 10-8. The semi final was against the German pairing of doubles specialist Kas, and grass court specialist Lisicki later on the Saturday. Once again the match went to a third set champions tie-break, with once more the Brit pairing prevailing. They had reached the final with an impressive 6-1, 6-7, 10-7 victory over a very decent pairing. Murray was guaranteed his second medal at the games, while 18 year old Laura Robson was picking up her first Olympic medal. I had expected them to do well together, but to do this well was unprecedented. That sort of summed up how the Olympics went for Britain.
When Murray played his first match against Wawrinka, Great Britain had won 2 medals but neither of them were Gold. By the time he walked onto the court to face another Swiss, Roger Federer, in the final on the 5th August, Great Britain had won 29 medals, 14 of which were Gold. Super Saturday had happened the day before when Britain had won 6 Gold medals, and Ben Ainslie was about to take Gold in the sailing, before Murray would have finished his final. Of the poster stars of the games, Ennis, Ainslie, Wiggins, Hoy, Pendleton and Farah had already delivered Gold; the pressure was truly on Murray to add to that list. It was merely 28 days since Murray had lost to Federer at the same venue; could he remove that memory quickly? There were obvious worries that Federer would be too strong for Murray; that once more he would have to settle for second place. Personally, I believed he could win if he won the first set and was competitive through to the third. I believed that the third set would be the one where the match was won or lost. We needn’t have worried. Murray flew out of the blocks, pummelling Federer to all corners of the court, rushing through the first two sets 6-1 and 6-2. Federer had no answer to Murray’s aggression and accuracy, added to the fact that he was serving better than I had ever seen. While the third set was closer, Murray managed to get a break at 2-2 and carried on serving well to see it out at 6-4. The victory margin of 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 was as emphatic as it sounded. It was the first time Murray had beaten Federer in a best of 5 set matches and secured yet another Gold for Team GB. So, what were the differences between this victory and the Wimbledon defeat? Well for a start, none of the match was played under the roof therefore giving Murray the chance to exploit atmospheric conditions and secondly there was the crowd. For Wimbledon, Federer had been the crowd favourite yet here at the Olympics, 99% of the crowd was behind Murray and incredibly vocal about it. Murray really relished playing for Team GB and he had been a man determined to win a medal since the start, he had come for something and walked away with Gold. This was the day he truly came of age.
So, could Murray add a second Gold to the tally just a few hours later? He asked for the mixed doubles final to be played straight after the singles final and when he and Robson took the first set 6-2, against the favourites and number 1 seed Belarusian pairing of Azarenka and Mirnyi, it looked to be justified. The first set had included 2 breaks of serve for the Brit pairing and a very impressive serving performance from Laura Robson, who had been struggling in the tournament, throwing in a lot of double faults. However, at 2-1 in the second set the wheels began to fall off. Murray missed a volley that he would usually make at break point down and the number 1 seeds went on to win the second set 6-3. Like all their other matches, the champions tie break was required. At 9-6, Azarenka and Mirnyi seemed to be cruising towards victory however Murray then saved two match points and another twist seemed on the cards. Unfortunately for Britain, there was nothing that both Murray and Robson could do with the next match point and the Belarusian pairing deservedly won 2-6, 6-3, 10-8. Despite the loss, both played exceptional tennis throughout the run and I would be very surprised if they didn’t team up again at another tournament.
Two medals, one of them Gold, beating the best player of all time convincingly and getting the belief that he could win majors were everything that Murray gained from his week at the Olympics. As he stood atop of the podium and sang along to God Save the Queen, there was nobody who questioned his nationality. He had become a national treasure to those who doubted before and those who didn’t doubt him had just become even prouder of their hero. The Olympics were everything I’d hoped them to be: a few weeks proving that sport can produce the most wonderful of memories and Britain helping themselves to a nice set of medals. Murray’s Gold was far and away my favourite of the lot, not just because it was Murray but also because of the quality of tennis he produced in the semi final and final. This truly was a tournament victory to savour, the next question was: could he reproduce this at majors? That question would be answered sooner rather than later.
Murray’s Match of the Tournament: I have called this Murray’s match of the tournament because the record for longest Olympic match was broken twice throughout the men’s singles. First of all Tsonga’s victory over Roanic lasted almost four hours, before Federer’s victory over Del Potro in the semi final beat that by lasting 4 hours and a half. Both were incredible matches and deserved a mention. However, Murray’s best match, for me, was the victory over Djokovic in the semi final. Yes, he absolutely destroyed Federer in the final but the way he dismantled Djokovic’s game, usually so solid, at will during the big points was mightily impressive. That win also pointed the way that that rivalry would start to go.
Most Heart-warming Moment: As if winning a Gold medal for your country isn’t heart-warming enough, how about hugging an eleven year old after your win? Henry Caplan was crying after Murray’s win so much that he walked down to where Murray would walk past and asked him for a hug as he did. Murray responded and as they embraced, he said “anything for my fans”. Words can’t do justice how nice this moment was.