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Thursday, September 13, 2012
Updated: September 14, 3:42 PM ET
Big 3 is now Fantastic 4

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

From the periphery -- the press box, the box seats, the blogosphere, the couch -- it is easy to focus on what a person cannot do or what he hasn't done and conclude that he sucks. That's why it is called the periphery. Far better to be the one at the molten core, in the unforgiving center of the arena, to be the one doing the work, the one writing the history.

Better to be the one challenging the arc, to be the guy instead of the guy who criticizes.

The 2012 Grand Slam season is over, and the foreboding and pessimism that forever surrounded Andy Murray has been replaced by crickets, or better still, the relieved sunbursts of applause.

Andy Murray
Andy Murray's passion, which in the past has been channeled as frustration, came through in his first Grand Slam singles title.

For both the men and women, a rousing, defining U.S. Open provided the proper conclusion to the year that confirmed three long-held suspicions: One, Murray's long-awaited major title was inevitable, and now he is poised to be an even more dangerous foe in the future.

Two, Serena Williams is making a champion's charge clearly aimed not at Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova or Petra Kvitova, but at Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova -- and maybe even Steffi Graf and Margaret Court.

And third: Although Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both are still the defining players of their time and both won a major title this year, their stranglehold on tennis -- already eased due to the presence of Novak Djokovic -- is loosening further, both incrementally and dramatically. The tennis world without Nadal is certainly less powerful, but Murray has entered the private room as a full member.

Williams and Murray, in very different though equally compelling ways, upstaged the yearlong weather controversies that affected three of the four majors, and the undiminished tensions of the equal pay debate between the men's and women's players, and even the poignant retirements of Kim Clijsters and Andy Roddick. Williams and Murray provided stirring public therapy sessions in the championship finals that explained, once again, in full dimension the hells and allures of athletic competition, of why people watch.

Only two months ago at Wimbledon, watching Federer at the podium, Murray was damp-cheeked, human in defeat and still without a major. Then, he rose, and hasn't lost a match since, beating Federer and Djokovic at the Olympics for the gold medal, and fittingly, Djokovic -- the great, immovable sequoia of the game -- for his first major.

With his tear-streaked face, Murray won over his countrymen at Wimbledon by exposing his beating heart. In 4 hours, 54 minutes in the New York wind, he rewrote his part to that of leading man. Flayed and raw in the final, Murray confronted and defeated the cruelty of his personal demons, the doubts that eroded his belief and -- at the worst times, against the best players -- undermined his talent.

In the process, he met the suffocating expectations of his people and history. For the first time on the biggest stage, Murray could smile at and not rue the illogic of victory. More than three-quarters of a century later, Fred Perry has gone back to his room.

The momentum toward today's stunningly shifted landscape had been building since the Australian Open, when it seemed nearly everyone at the top would be critically affected by that exhaustive weekend in Melbourne, paying an enormous price for their rewards.

Serena Williams
After the French Open, there was no stopping Serena Williams.

Nadal, in defeat, discovered he would need more than his best to overcome Djokovic and emptied his considerable reserve of energy during the clay season to guarantee he would not fail. He succeeded in beating Djokovic for his record seventh French Open title, and hasn't been healthy since.

Djokovic's win in Australia was his fifth major title, and solidified his position as an all-time fixture. Nadal denied him the career Slam in Paris, and he didn't win another major this year, but reached three of the four finals.

Finally, however, after being battered by pressures from all sides -- from becoming the hunted, his oblique references to "personal issues" in his private life, to finally showing the emotional and physical wear of living on defeat's edge -- he showed his vulnerability against Murray.

The accumulation of the Djokovic legend took its toll. After five hours with Murray and nearly six with Nadal in Melbourne; down four match points against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Roland Garros quarters and two sets down against Nadal in the final; distracted, uneven performances against Federer at Wimbledon, then Murray and Juan Martin del Potro at the Olympics; and down two sets against Murray at Flushing Meadows, Djokovic showed that by tripping and scrambling, by falling down and being unnerved by stormy weather conditions, to finally succumbing to a relentless Murray, that given enough punishment, even iron men will bleed.

Victory is an unpredictable odyssey, the competitor on the other side of the net the only reliable constant. The rest is never so clean, and throughout the season, rising to a boil at Wimbledon was the business of the sport.

So much changes by a hair. Technology has made the elements less of an obstacle, but technology -- i.e., the building of a retractable roof -- also costs money and emotional currency to change. Rain and darkness altered the fate of pivotal matches at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, with Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Sharapova at some point benefiting and suffering from key play stoppages.

The U.S. Open is a $200 million event, is planning a $500 million expansion and has played a Monday final in five consecutive years, yet refuses to address the roof issue. It is a bureaucratic lapse that lends credence to the charge from Djokovic, Nadal and others that the tour cares less about the players and the quality of play than its caviar.

Before the men's players were distracted by the elements, they were dismayed about their wallets. Before the U.S. Open began, an Australian news outlet reported ATP players were considering a boycott of the 2013 Australian Open because the men were upset that both they and the women would receive $1.9 million in prize money at the Grand Slams.

At Wimbledon, world No. 20 Gilles Simon was the face of the complaint, but he is merely voicing a tour-wide, politically sensitive but financially legitimate concern. In Flushing, after narrowly overcoming a first-round upset at the hands of Guillaume Rufin, world No. 9 Janko Tipsarevic issued an unsolicited opinion of his disagreement with the practice of men and women receiving equal pay at majors.

At Wimbledon, Simon said the women's game was less interesting, less popular and less profitable, which is why they did not deserve equal compensation. At the U.S. Open, Tipsarevic said women played fewer sets on the court, and thus were undeserving.

The Grand Slams set the amount of prize money and the ticket prices. Fans attending a Grand Slam event are paying for men and women equally when they enter the gates. The men clearly have a problem with the tour and the 14 percent of the revenues they receive. They want their fair share, but instead of pointing the cannon where it belongs -- at the suits who determine the dollar amounts, the formats and sign the checks -- they have taken their frustrations out on the women. Whether they boycott the Aussie or concentrate on unionizing, the equal-pay conversation has just begun.

Throughout Azarenka's painful, unartistic outlasting of Sharapova in the U.S. Open semifinal, the crowd joined the men's silent majority, periodically whispering in between unforced errors and double faults, "Equal pay for this?", and when Williams crushed Azarenka in the first set of the final, the women seemed to reinforce the position.

But what began as a coronation and turned into a disaster ended as something closer to a classic. For a year that began with a loss in Melbourne to Ekaterina Makarova and moved to Paris with a stunning first-round loss to Virginie Razzano, Williams, like Murray, refined defeat into jet fuel during the summer.

The difference was, unlike Federer returning to the top at Wimbledon, Williams' reclamation of the throne did not add to the intrigue of the women's game as much as it confirmed the lack of a needed hierarchy. Sharapova won the career Slam at Roland Garros, but in the second half of the summer was reduced by Williams to a shrieking bully. Caroline Wozniacki, at this time last year the top women's player in the world, has disappeared as a top-shelf player, no more dangerous than Julia Goerges or Marion Bartoli. Serena Williams owns the women's game.

And it was a challenge to Williams -- exactly opposite of what occurred the following day between Murray and Djokovic -- that turned the lackluster into terrific theater. If Murray needed to prove to himself that he could actually slay the dragon, Williams' journey to her 15th major was in believing she still is a dragon.

That Williams, who since losing to Razzano in the first round at the French Open has transformed the women's game from an ensemble to a Broadway monologue, could be afflicted in the middle of a championship match with a debilitating loss of belief and concentration to a player like Azarenka is a testament to the beauty and base cruelty of the sport.

The legend will show that Williams trailed 3-5 in the final set and won, that after the French she won five titles (Wimbledon singles and doubles, Olympics singles and doubles gold, and the U.S. Open singles), and now suddenly, with the hyperbolic assistance of broadcasters Navratilova, Evert and John McEnroe, Williams' summer not only became a mandate but a standard.

Like Murray at Wimbledon, maybe Azarenka -- who started the year with a 26-match winning streak -- will become the winner in defeat by seeing what is possible. Before the final, Williams had lost a total of 19 games in six matches. Azarenka won 13 games in the final. Maybe a rivalry, and even a successor, was born.

Murray's price of Melbourne was to turn the season into a referendum, one that grew more urgent as the news on Nadal's knees grew worse. After Roland Garros, the story of the year was a Nadal resurgence. After the first week of Wimbledon, the story of the men's game is the opportunity to capitalize on Nadal's uncertainty, challenge Djokovic's invincibility and outlast Federer's last stand.

It is of which player is going to stare into the mirror, and then across the net, and not blink.

Earlier this year, Tomas Berdych was close but failed to beat Federer in a final, yet regained himself and eliminated Federer in the U.S. Open quarterfinals. Tsonga, maddening and electric, fell far in an uninspired showing at the Open, getting bounced in the second round. Though the wind conditions nearly provided an equalizer in the semifinal against Djokovic, the admirable David Ferrer is undersized and underpowered.

The person, naturally, was Murray all along.

He was the only player in the men's game with no discernible, irreparable deficiencies to keep him from winning. The moments during the U.S. Open when he appeared destined to break hearts -- the odd, three-tiebreak struggle against Feliciano Lopez, the dead-as-disco effort against Marin Cilic that put him in a 3-6, 1-5 hole before he rose and Cilic collapsed -- seemed proof that Murray simply was not tough enough. He appeared to be showing that he lacked the requisite DNA to look long enough without blinking, that he was destined to play the wrong shot, miss the wrong forehand, curse at the wrong time, stiffen on the wrong backhand -- and all of the fire and all of the coaching, and all of the Ivan Lendls in the world cannot fix that.

The truth, which of course requires time and patience and perspective, was something quite different. As he and Djokovic punished each other, through rallies of 54, 33, 30, 36 shots, Murray was continuing to write a narrative not into sand but concrete, that the title did, in fact, belong to him.

There were great and beautiful moments during the Grand Slam season: Djokovic's heart and will, Ferrer's determination. The classic quarterfinal between Ferrer and Tipsarevic at the U.S. Open was -- until the final -- the best match of the tournament. Nadal won his seventh French Open, despite the cost, and of course, Federer's charge back to No. 1 and his elegant capture of major No. 17.

The year, though, belongs to Murray, for in the brutal final it was clear through the wind gusts that Murray was bridging the gulf between knowing and believing. He knew he belonged in the category but couldn't completely believe because he hadn't won.

His moment came in the fifth set, when he broke Djokovic thrillingly for the second time for the knockout, the classic sounds of Djokovic racing, flailing and screeching along the baseline proof that this time there would be no legendary comeback from two sets down, no primal, defiant howls, and no miraculous return from the brink. The inexhaustible Djokovic was spent. The tree fell. Without asterisks, the Big Three had become a Fantastic Four.