When Stan Wawrinka won his second major a few weeks ago in Paris, he forever banished the possibility that his only major title would come against a physically compromised opponent in the final. Wawrinka registered an achievement which will rightly change the way we think about him as a tennis player.
Something else Wawrinka did at the French Open has managed to throw some attention in the direction of another player on the ATP Tour: By winning Roland Garros, Stan The Man tied Andy Murray on the major title list.
That’s right: Murray, for all the many Masters 1000 titles he’s won, and for all the stacks and stacks of major semifinals and finals he’s reached, has only two majors. Having just turned 28 — he and Novak Djokovic were born just a month apart — Murray, now fully recovered from a back surgery that hijacked his form for much of 2014, faces a hugely important stage in his career.
No, it’s not the most important part of his career — winning a first major at the 2012 U.S. Open and then conquering “The Wimbledon Problem,” otherwise known as the 77-year itch, will always represent the most important achievements of Murray’s career. Capturing Olympic gold by beating Djokovic (semifinals) and Roger Federer (gold medal match) at Wimbledon in August of 2012 will also give Murray’s career an extra sheen of excellence.
Let’s emphasize this about the Scotsman before going deeper into our discussion of him: If Murray doesn’t collect a fat stack of additional majors in the coming years, he will still sleep peacefully — partly because of who he is (and how he carries himself) as a person, but also because he won Wimbledon. That will always be the first thing future generations in the United Kingdom recall about him. If Fred Perry’s name endured in the British public for decades, Murray’s name is almost certain to do the same. The most central things Murray has needed to achieve in order to create a happily memorable career are things he’s safely secured and locked away for safe keeping.
Murray’s career — and any future appraisals of it — deserve that much.
With that having been said, though, there’s no denying how significant the next four years are in gaining the fullest measure of Andy Murray as a tennis practitioner.
Here’s a simple way of expressing the importance of the coming years for Murray: His career is already great and will never cease to be so. However, can he reach a higher tier of greatness? That’s what it means to compete in the same era as Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal.
Boris Becker. Stefan Edberg. John McEnroe. Three legitimately, unquestionably, great tennis players accumulated many accomplishments and established themselves as Hall of Famers well above the minimal thresholds reserved for the likes of Michael Chang and Jana Novotna. Becker, Edberg and McEnroe established Hall of Fame standards higher than those of many others throughout the history of tennis.
Yet, in looking at those three players, you can so plainly see that they did not quite reach the standards set by Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl, players whose durability and longevity enabled them to produce resumes more thickly stuffed with milestones and impressive tennis feats.
Connors and Lendl, as great as they were, didn’t rise to the heights attained by Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg, two men who simply have to occupy any top-8 list of male tennis players. A top-5 list could leave one of them out, but a top-8 list could not, under any present-day circumstances. Laver and Borg certainly add texture and weight to the notion that greatness exists at many levels, and shouldn’t just lump a large swath of players under one broad banner.
This leads us to the present moment, as we prepare for Wimbledon 2015.
Djokovic, Federer and Nadal — albeit to varying degrees — have redefined greatness not just in the modern age, but for the Open era of men’s tennis. That they’ve all coexisted in relatively close proximity to each other, fundamentally sharing the biggest stages even though their peaks didn’t neatly coincide (Djokovic’s prime began as Federer’s prime ended in 2010 — that’s rather clear with the benefit of hindsight), has been remarkable to watch. That coexistence of “Fedalovic” is the reason this is the finest period in men’s tennis since the Open era began in 1968.
It’s also the reason Andy Murray has two majors instead of nine.
Would anyone contest the claim that, much as Andy Roddick — if born just four years earlier — would have won multiple Wimbledons, Andy Murray would have gobbled up loads of majors if born in 1977 instead of 1987? Timing certainly means a lot, and as much as his forehand needed time to develop, Murray’s game was more than complete enough to win championships against the ATP field as it existed in the very late 1990s and very early 2000s. He, like Roddick and several others one could readily cite, had the misfortune of sharing the stage with the three men who have devoured so many championships, leaving mere table scraps for everybody else.
Now, though, Murray has an opening. If his health holds up, he is looking at a three- or four-year window in which Roger Federer will be in his mid-30s; Rafael Nadal’s tank might run empty (don’t expect it, but don’t be surprised if it happens), and the ATP Lost Boys might not fill in the gaps.
Andy Murray can always enjoy a truly great career, but these next four years give him the chance to reach higher tiers of greatness.
Let’s frame the matter in these terms: If Murray wins a total of six or seven majors before he retires, he’ll be remembered in a very specific way. If Murray remains stuck at two majors and watches Wawrinka claim four majors before the Swiss No. 2 hangs up his racquet, he’ll be remembered in a very different way.
It’s really rather striking: In the absence of an ATP Lost Boys contender at this Wimbledon tournament (really, who’s going to step up here among the under-26 crowd?), every prime Wimbledon contender is at least 28 years old: Murray, Djokovic, Federer, Wawrinka, Nadal, Tomas Berdych. There’s no younger face in the top tier of contenders, or even the second tier — maybe the third (and that might be generous).
Andy Murray, his health restored and his game built back to the point that he took Djokovic to a fifth set in a French Open semifinal, has done extremely well at the majors in 2015. The only thing missing from Murray’s recovery — from his back surgery and his unavoidably slow 2014 — has been a win over a member of the Big Three at a major.
With Nadal seeded at No. 10 and Djokovic and Federer occupying each of the top two seed slots, Murray might very well require no more than one victory over a Big Three opponent to win a second Wimbledon.
Being remembered as a great player is something Andy Murray doesn’t have to worry about; it’s how great Murray will become that lingers over him as The Championships approach first ball on Monday.