~ Posted by Tim de Lisle, September 11th 2012

[Reposted from last year when Andy Murray won gold at the Olympics.]

For the past few years, there have been three outstanding tennis players in the world, with Andy Murray some way behind, not so much the fourth man as the first of the also-rans, doggedly leading the peloton. Now, he has joined the club. He has beaten the world number one, Roger Federer, to win the Olympic gold medal; he has beaten the world number two, Novak Djokovic, to win the US Open; and today he clambered over the other member of the old triumvirate, Rafael Nadal, to become the world number three. Andy Murray has arrived.

His final push from the plateau to the summit hasn’t come out of nowhere. It is the product of seven factors, some old, some new.

Murray, who so often becomes "the Scot" on the sports pages, doesn’t live in Scotland any more, preferring the greater convenience and softer contours of Surrey. But he grew up in Dunblane, a small town half an hour north of Glasgow. It played a direct part in his first Grand Slam win by getting him used to playing tennis in bad weather. At the US Open this weekend, with a tornado in the air, the wind was so strong that many people thought it was ridiculous to carry on playing in it. This school of thought included Murray’s last two opponents, Tomas Berdych and Djokovic, who were both a lot more ruffled by the wind than he was.

Djokovic wasn’t just Murray’s fall guy in the final. He was his trailblazer. Last year he showed it was possible to go from bridesmaid to bride, and that Federer and Nadal, despite being two of the all-time greats, were not out of reach. Djokovic spent four years on his own plateau as world number three, winning only one major title (the Australian Open of 2008, against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga). Then he decided to do something about it, training harder, honing his serve, attacking more and giving up gluten. The upshot was that he started 2011 by winning 41 matches in a row, and made off with three majors—the Australian (beating Murray), Wimbledon (Nadal) and the US (Nadal again). Murray, who used to hit with Djokovic, saw that it was possible—and gave up gluten too.

The four lost finals
No man in the open era has ever lost his first five Grand Slam finals, but Murray is among those who have lost their first four. In the first three, he didn’t do much more than turn up: he went down in straight sets to Federer at the US in 2008 and again in Australia in 2010, and to Djokovic in Australia in 2011. Only this year, at Wimbledon, did he finally do himself justice. He still lost, but he dominated the first set and a half, and Federer, with six Wimbledon titles already in the bag, had to dig deep to beat him. There are certain players and teams that need to do badly before they do well, and Murray seems to be one of them. He runs on bloody-mindedness.

The Olympics
For Murray, the Olympics were just the thing. They offered him a rematch against Federer, so that for the first time ever, the Wimbledon final could be replayed, at Wimbledon, a month later. They were run differently, so the stuffiness of the All England Club, which Murray chafes against, was swept away: he could wear dark colours and his scruffy black trainers, and the crowd could make more noise. He was playing for a cause bigger than himself, and he even discovered mixed doubles, winning silver with Laura Robson, whom he seemed to be mentoring (she too made a leap forward at the US Open). But above all he played the match of his life against Federer, attacking fearlessly and winning in straight sets. The Olympics did for Murray what the Davis Cup had done for Djokovic in 2009, handing him a big win and a shot of confidence.

Ivan Lendl
To get from the plateau to the summit, you need a good guide. Murray’s Sherpa Tenzing was Ivan Lendl—terse, grouchy, unloved, but a man who knows what it is to lose your first four Grand Slam finals, and to have to get better. When he sits watching Murray, he is stern as a Victorian father. Now Murray has emulated him in making the breakthrough in his fifth final. "You’ll win," Lendl told him, "but you’re going to have to go through a lot of pain to get there, so be ready for that." He was spot-on apart from the timing: he said this before Murray played Djokovic in the semi-final of the Australian Open Melbourne in January. An epic five-setter, it was very like the US Open final—except that Murray lost.

Nasser Hussain, the captain who led the England cricket team out of the wilderness about a decade ago, was once asked if luck had played a part in his career. "Every day," he replied. Murray has had some vital luck this year. Nadal has been laid low by a knee injury, allowing Murray to sail to the final of both Wimbledon and the Olympics. In New York, he was due to meet Federer in the semi-final, but got lucky when Tomas Berdych beat him.

His own will

All the above helped, but beating a player as good as Djokovic, over five sets, in New York, under huge pressure, is still a mountainous achievement. What got Murray there, above all, was his will and his skill. In an age of great returners of serve, he has been the best of them all, according to a survey of hard-court tournaments of the past 20 years. He has worked like a slave. He has beefed up his forehand and his second serve. He has put up with Lendl. He has coped with a pushy parent, and a nation that is like a few million pushy parents, heaping expectations on his shoulders, starved of tennis glory for 76 years. “It was really tough," Murray said after he finally slayed Djokovic. "Novak’s such a fighter." And so is he.

Tim de Lisle is editor of Intelligent Life. His recent posts for the Editors' Blog include Kom on, Mary and Sergei Polunin's restlessness