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Monday, August 6, 2012
Murray toughest when it mattered most


Given Andy Murray's history in tennis, it was only natural that one of the first questions asked of him following his masterful and surprisingly comprehensive demolition of top-seeded Roger Federer in the Olympic games gold-medal match at Wimbledon was: Yes, but is it as superb an achievement as winning a Grand Slam event?

Television commentator John McEnroe went there, mere minutes after Murray, the No. 3 seed, sealed his 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 win on Centre Court with a pair of thunderbolt aces. McEnroe tried to phrase the question delicately, asking how it felt to win this event compared to a Grand Slam.

Murray, an honest guy, reminded McEnroe that he couldn't actually answer that, seeing as how he'd never won a Grand Slam, but he wasn't going to downplay what he'd just accomplished. "I know how this feels, and it's just great."

We can set aside the circumstantial evidence that some will use to rationalize Federer's subpar performance (like the lingering effects of that draining 4½-hour semifinal match with Juan Martin del Potro, finally won by Federer after a 19-17 third set). The way Murray played Sunday would be enough to fool anyone that it was he, not Federer, who had long-term lease on that famous patch of green turf.

Murray faced just one crisis in the match, that agonizingly long third game of the second set. (Murray led at the time by a set and a break, 2-0.) Had Federer converted any of his six break points in that 15-minute game, it might have been a longer match, but perhaps not one with a very different conclusion -- not unless Murray came apart at the seams from failing to consolidate that critical break.

But the 25-year-old Scot was at his toughest when it most mattered, and he finally managed to play the aggressive and unyielding match that had seemed beyond his grasp in four unsuccessful Grand Slam finals -- and a passel of semis against one or another of the big three (Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal). And Murray got a grip on the match right from the get-go, which isn't something we could always count on him to do.

Skeptics will point out that the Olympics tennis event was less like a Grand Slam than the typical, one-week Masters 1000 event at which Murray had previously done his best work. There's some truth in that; Murray is, by far, the most successful Masters competitor outside the Grand Slam champions circle. He's won six of those top-tier events. David Ferrer, the man ranked immediately behind him at No. 5, has yet to win his first.

The best-of-three-sets format and compressed Masters schedule has always suited Murray's temperament. There's some truth to the claim that Murray, a moody sort, just hasn't been able to sustain his best level over the two-week period of a Grand Slam. But that explanation seems too pat.

Let's remember that the Olympics final was a best-of-five match, played at Wimbledon -- the venue where Murray has so often had to bear up under the pressure of his countrymen's expectations as well as the talent of his most formidable rivals. It's safe to say that the task that lay before Murray on Sunday, on the same court where Federer had beaten him for the Wimbledon title just a month ago, was a little more daunting than meeting Federer in the final at Cincinnati.

As well, there was greater gravitas to Olympics tennis this year than ever before. That was partly because it took place at Wimbledon. It was also because top players who once shunned the Games, or played in them as a lark or afterthought, came determined and cloaked with newfound resolve. Tennis has matured as an Olympic sport and a staple of the Games. The top men were well-rested after Wimbledon and approached the Olympics with a steely glint in their eyes.

Most important for Murray, this win could be a game-changer. Murray revealed that shortly before the Olympics, his coach Ivan Lendl told him, "'You'll never play under greater pressure than you did during the [recent] Wimbledon final." Murray added, "That really helped me today."

It's likely to help Murray even more in the days to come.