Sunday, August 5, 2012
Murray the bridesmaid no more
By Jackie MacMullan ESPN.com
LONDON -- Finally, Charlie Brown kicked the ball. For once, Lucy didn't humiliate him yet again by snatching it away at the last moment.
Andy Murray was Britain's Charlie Brown, a sincere, motivated, talented tennis player perched on the verge of greatness, only to have someone else upend him at the most critical juncture, usually with all of the tennis world looking on sympathetically.
Poor Andy. It had become the sad refrain of the United Kingdom, which has not witnessed one of its own win at Wimbledon since Fred Perry last did the honors in 1936.
Just one month ago, Murray stood at Centre Court of the hallowed grass stadium in the Wimbledon final and stole the first set from Roger Federer. But Federer rebounded in the second set and ripped off three in a row for the title. When it was over, Murray was so distraught, he broke down and wept, crushed by the weight of letting down his country again.
Poor Andy. That loss left him 0-for-4 in Grand Slam title matches (three of them were against Federer) and left the Queen Mum wringing her hands over the dearth of champions in racket sports.
Roger Federer sure looked his age during the Olympic gold-medal match.
"Sure, you feel that,'' Murray said at the time.
Murray was back for more Sunday, representing Great Britain in the gold-medal game for men's singles, and the opponent was again Federer, who may go down as the greatest tennis player of all time.
Murray's fellow Brits were hopeful, yet resigned to the fact their hearts -- and that of their hard-luck star -- could well be broken again.
Not this time. Murray, buoyed by an Olympic crowd that repeatedly chanted his name, blanketed the stands with Union Jacks and actually ignited the wave, pounded his way to a stunning 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 victory over Federer.
This time, the tears were replaced by a leap of unbridled joy and a fist pump that TKO'd lingering discussion on whether this 25-year-old has the necessary fortitude to win the "big one.''
Capturing Olympic gold in your home country on your beloved grass against the world's top player has a way of validating the résumé.
"Murray's movement was incredible,'' declared tennis legend John McEnroe, who is in London doing commentary for BBC television. "I think he got inside Federer's head.''
Murray is already ranked No. 4 in the world, but shredding Federer for the gold and knocking off Novak Djokovic to get there will undoubtedly boost his psyche going forward. Murray has said many times the only way he can truly establish himself is to beat the best when it matters most, including guys named Roger, Novak and Rafael.
He completed his annihilation of Federer with back-to-back aces, then scaled the stands and melted into the crowd to hug his girlfriend, parents and coaches.
"When I look back on the match it will be one of the biggest wins of my career, for sure," Murray said. "It's one of the best matches I've played.''
Later, Murray said he was inspired by the gold medals accrued by Great Britain's athletes one night earlier, among them heptathlete Jessica Ennis, 10,000-meter runner Mo Farah and long jumper Greg Rutherford.
"I watched them and it gave me a boost coming into today,'' he said.
The most shocking component of the match was how easily Murray cruised to victory. Federer resembled a U.S. sports team at the end of a long road trip that was already thinking about home. He lost nine straight games in this match, committed 31 unforced errors and lacked his usual verve and power.
Federer came by his sluggishness honestly. Forty-eight hours earlier he survived a grueling, riveting 4-hour, 26-minute semifinal match in which he finally dispatched of Juan Martin del Potro by a score of 19-17 in the final set.
Federer conceded the emotionally taxing semifinal might have affected him in the final but added, "I'm glad I had a match like that, even if it did cost me the finals. Who knows?"
The more appropriate question in London today is "Who cares?"
Nobody in these parts. Even a win over a subpar Federer won't dampen the enthusiasm for their favorite tennis son.
Murray demonstrated mental tenacity from the outset of the match by fighting off a double break point to win the first game with one of his sizzling signature passing shots. He then battled with Federer through 13 points to break his serve for a 4-2 advantage in the first set.
Mindful that one set would mean little against someone of Federer's talent and experience, Murray went on the attack in the second set, hammering away at Federer's backhand and pinning him in the corners. Murray broke serve to take a 2-0 lead in the second set, and outlasted Federer in the very next game through 19 points to hold serve.
"Andy was much better than I was today in many aspects of the game,'' Federer said.
At no time did it feel as though Federer had the momentum or the game plan on this day to be effective. He was slow to some balls and careless with others, including an easy volley that he slammed into the net. "For the first time in a long time,'' McEnroe observed, "[Federer] looked his age.''
Federer, incidentally, will turn 31 on Wednesday, and suggested that he will return to Olympic competition at 2016 in Rio.
By then, Murray will be 29 years old and perhaps might have a Grand Slam title or two in tow. His grand Olympic moment in front of his adoring public could well be the stepping-stone in his young and ever-developing career.
"I don't think he needed this, to be quite honest,'' Federer opined. "He's a good player. Don't forget that. I was happy to see he never let down.''
Perhaps now Murray can put all his other shortcomings behind him.
"I'll be honest,'' Murray said. "This makes the other losses easier to take.''
Poor Andy? No longer. This time Britain's Charlie Brown kicked the ball long and straight, right through Wimbledon's version of the uprights.