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Success taking a toll on top stars
Roger Federer says he's "wounded" and does not know how much more he will play this year. Rafael Nadal's knees have ruined the second half of his year. Novak Djokovic's legs went at the end of that five-set marathon in the US Open final.
Which leaves Andy Murray as the last man standing.
Murray, or the Duke of Dunblane as we might call him now, was the junior partner in the heavy hitting quartet who have lorded over men's tennis for the past five years. Back in January, everyone was wondering whether this unprecedented dominance of four players at the top of the ranking list could survive another campaign.
Amazingly, it did — once again, they won everything in sight — but at considerable cost. The surprise was not, perhaps, that they went on winning but that they survived the obstacle course for as long as they did. Let's take a look at what they achieved:
Djokovic began the year by defending his Australian Open crown, which culminated in the Serb playing a total of 10 hours, 3 minutes just to get through his last two matches. He needed 4 hours, 50 minutes to beat Murray in a semifinal thriller but then had to stay on court for an incredible 5 hours, 53 minutes before he could overcome Nadal in the final.
At the French Open, the weather meant that Nadal would need two days to beat Djokovic in the final. At Wimbledon, Federer got the better of Murray in four sets, the first two of which lasted 1 hour, 53 minutes. Then Murray, closing on his rivals in the home stretch, won with surprising ease against Federer in the gold-medal match at the Olympics on that same Centre Court.
And so to Flushing Meadows, where Murray became the first British male in 76 years to win a Grand Slam singles title when he defeated Djokovic over five sets.
So the honors board, including the Olympics, comes up looking like this:
Murray: Two titles, one more final
Djokovic: One title, two more finals
Nadal: One title, one more final
Federer: One title, one more final
Ten slots open for the five big finals and the top four grabbed them all. No surprise, perhaps, but for Murray to come out with the best overall record was certainly not expected. You can argue the case for the Olympics being included among the Slams on the basis that the top players now put as much effort into trying to win gold as they do one of the more traditional tennis majors, which was not the case 20 years ago.
For Murray, it certainly proved to be the stepping stone to his triumph in New York.
"It, obviously, gave me some extra confidence," he said. "It was, by far, the biggest win of my career before winning the US Open."
The reasons why Murray was able to finish strongest in this pedigree field were numerous. Many will put his relationship with Ivan Lendl at the top of the list, and there is no doubt that the tough-talking Czech-born champion was the perfect choice as an addition to Murray's close-knit team. Lendl himself has admitted that his own history of having lost in four Slam finals before winning one helped Murray get over that particular psychological hurdle. And, technically, improvements with his second serve and the power with which he now hits his forehand proved to be crucial improvements.
Reaching the final at Wimbledon for the first time was another breakthrough, even though it ended in defeat. Previously he had been left in despair at losing finals in Australia.
"But the support I got from the fans and those close to me after losing at Wimbledon really helped me get over it quicker," Murray said. "I was able to take a lot of positives from losing in a final, which had not been the case before."
Returning to the same stage only three weeks later inspired Murray to be more aggressive. To everyone's surprise, he outplayed the great Swiss champion 6-2, 6-1, 6-4.
That provided the springboard for victory at the US Open, where he was able to withstand a Djokovic fight-back that saw the Serb win the third and fourth sets because he was equipped mentally, technically and, crucially, physically to deal with it.
Not every commentator has picked up on precisely what was happening in the first two sets. It was not a question of whether Murray was winning or losing rallies that regularly lasted more than 15 or 20 strokes — one broke some kind of a record at 54 — but how the rallies were being played out. More often than not, it was the Scot who was dictating the play from the middle of his baseline while Djokovic did the running. In the end, in those last few minutes of the match, that factor decided the outcome.
Novak's mind was still willing — "I was trying my hardest to get back from 2-4," he said — but the legs were no longer supporting his effort.
"I had trouble moving for the last couple of games," he admitted.
So all that core work Murray has done with his fitness trainer, Jez Green, and the team proved vital at the end, even though, because of the Olympics, Murray had been forced to miss his customary tune-up in Miami's sticky summer heat in July. But physical work builds up over a period of years, especially when an athlete is reaching his peak in his mid-20s, and the extra strength was there when Murray needed it most.
That is not to say he is a stronger or better athlete than Djokovic, who is a phenomenal specimen himself. But, on this particular day, Murray was able to preserve some energy at the start when Djokovic was expending it. That was one decisive factor with the other being Murray's ability to rediscover his service rhythm which had seen him maintain an incredible first-service percentage of 80 percent in the first set. In the fifth, the first serves started finding their mark again, blocking the Serb's path to another come back after he had gone an early break down.
Perhaps the three people in the world who were least surprised at Murray's climb to the top were his three great rivals — Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. They, along with their peers in the locker room, had been saying Murray was good enough to win a Slam for years.
"He's proven it now, and he deserves to be where he is, no question about it," said Djokovic of a player he has looked upon as a friend from the moment they first played each other at the age of 11.
It remains to be seen just how big a toll this fierce competition between four of the greatest players of all time takes on the participants in a physical sense. Hopefully, Federer and Nadal will be able to climb back in the ring by the time the ATP World Finals return to London's 02 Arena in November. The year deserves a great finale with all four in fighting shape. As Djokovic said, this is a special era.
"Us four are taking this game to another level," he said. "Andy winning makes it even more competitive and more interesting for people to watch."
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