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The end of history, or Andy Murray's attempted rivalry with Novak Djokovic

June 21, 2016


As of June 5th, the tennis season is through Roland Garros. Wimbledon will start before the end of the month. In between those two swells in the Grand Slam ocean, Andy Murray made history by winning the Queens tournament for a fifth time. He is the only player to do so, having laid waste to Milos Raonic in the tournament's championship match. This summer has also seen Murray reunite with his former coach, Ivan Lendl, in order to start winning Grand Slams again, which is the sort of history that tends to matter most in the tennis world. Of course, this accomplishment would also entail solving the Novak Djokovic conundrum. 


Some puzzles, like Raonic's serve, are easier for Andy Murray to solve than others. And at this point in their careers, Djokovic's game must appear to Andy like a rubik's cube with no matching tiles. The two players are what remain of the Big Four era, and yet they are not on equal footing. Djokovic currently holds every trophy that matters, and will not see the court again until he’s under the starch white lights of Wimbeldon. Meanwhile, Andy is a king without a kingdom; the Stannis Baratheon of the professional tennis ranks. No minor tournament win can change that no matter how many times it happens, and his turning the page back to the days of Lendl is a gesture wrought from nostalgic desperation. He is, in this way, chasing a birthright he can no longer possess. 

When Andy won Wimbledon in 2013 (the second of his two Grand Slams), he pulled within striking distance of Novak Djokovic, who, at the time, held six Grand Slam titles. Since then, however, Novak has won six more major titles and Andy none. Gone are the days when the tennis world could envision Murray out dueling to the ends of the earth the player he grew up battling on the amateur circuit. As Louisa Thomas writes, “He is no longer playing for history.” 

While Andy has become an on-the-court metonym for turmoil and despair, Novak has become a token for inner peace. Whether this state of being is the cause of his winning or a result of it, the Serbian player did not so much cross the Rubicon as he became the river. His power and might span both waves and continents. He is everywhere, and the rest of the tennis season will be about his historical reverence. Little else will matter, unless that little else is the twig that dams Novak's onslaught.

And while Murray has failed more often than not in Grand Slam finals against Novak, Andy is still the most viable option the sport possesses for redirecting the Djokovic’s floodwaters. This tennis season could have been different, and, for a flash at Roland Garros, that difference could still be seen. 

In Paris, Andy Murray moved from distraction to focus in his march from the tournament’s early challenges to his winning the first set in the tournament’s championship match. He struck decisive forehands. He maneuvered in front of the baseline, rather than sulking behind it. He looked tall and alert, less like a bloodhound, and more like an elephant. He was not so much a barbarian blubbering at the gates, but a general with a game plan.


In his latest showdown with Novak, the two exchanged shots. They collected clay in the grooves of their shoes. They clanged the tension in their rackets against the heels of those red-stained shoes. They hunkered down for a battle that promised, at least in its early going, to be writ large as the Arch de Triumph. 

Except that promise mistook illusion for its keystone. As much as Murray’s early energy commanded respect, his success benefited greatly from Novak’s temporary loss of nerves. When the man seeking the career Grand Slam finally found his game and quit landing his forehand out of bounds, Hannibal’s march through the Alps fled on sight, as if besieged by an army of rodents. 

Still, this loss unfolded somewhat differently than so many of Andy’s major losses to Novak. Less obscenities exited his lips. He did not berate himself nor his box, at least not to the point of embarrassment. Perhaps the early experiences of fatherhood or some other realization of the good life have quelled his on court tantrums. On the other hand, maybe his retreat from anger is a letting go of frustration; an acceptance of the world according to Novak. After all, no matter how much control Andy possesses of himself, he will never compose the tennis world in the same manner as Djokovic. 

Up 15-love and five games to three, Andy Murray tossed the ball over his head and arched his back, like the stroke of a cursive pen. Opposite him, in back of the ad court, crouched Novak Djokovic. His left leg losing contact with the red clay before Andy even struck the ball, always a fraction ahead of his would be rival, anticipating every move the Brit might make. Then the confusion started. 

The ball landed on the centre service line, possibly in the deuce court and out of play. Novak attempted a return; the ball sailed widely out of bounds. As Novak returned serve, or before, or after, Damien Dumusois, the chair umpire, yelled, “Out!” Then the two met at the centre service line, like two men inspecting a fender bender or a bit of roadkill. Dumusoi repeated multiple times, “It’s this one here. It’s this one here.” He pointed each time, and Novak bemoaned the official wearing a light blue blazer and navy slacks in disbelief. Seconds later, the Hawk-eye review system revealed that Murray’s serve had caught the line with a thickness relative to a cheese slice. The crowd began to boo. Novak exited the disagreement with a sarcastic thumb’s up, insistent that he only hit the ball out because the umpire had already called the ball out. The point went to Andy; the boos continued. 

When Murray leaned into his service routine, with the score 30-love, the crowd still booed. He exited his routine. He waited. The crowd would not stop, and then, with Novak gesturing to let go of the recent past, the crowd began to cheer. Further gesturing from Novak — his hands in the air as if conducting a symphony —caused  the red clay heart of the tennis world to hold its breath. Andy would win the game and the set, but what else could he manage against an opponent so in control, not just of himself, but the arena and the world at large? Rare is the power of Novak Djokovic, who silenced a kingdom with neither a word nor a dragon.

Maybe it’s hyperbole to suggest that this rivalry is as lacking in substance as the one between Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. After all, Andy Murray did defeat Novak Djokovic in the Italian Open leading up to Roland Garros, but such moments are so few and far between in recent years. In the five other clay matches between the two, Andy went win-less. Moreover, the win in Rome was just Andy’s second victory over his would be rival in their last fourteen matches. To a degree, whatever this match-up offers can be defined by what it’s not, and what’s it’s not is an even fight, where each encounter redefines the two competitors. Instead, the two men leave the Coliseum exactly as they entered it. They are the two best players in the world, but they are not equals. 


Imagine if Andy Murray had been the victor at Roland Garros: he would now be holding three of the game’s major championships, just like Djokovic. He would be the man between Novak and that coveted French Open, and Novak would be the man between him and that coveted Australian Open. That kind of fun would have provided the game with an almost too perfect degree of symmetry.

Maybe tennis needs the Djokovic versus Murray rivalry to materialize into something less predictable. Then again, maybe tennis only needs Djokovic — the alpha and omega. Either way, the game is an old one, with roots groping back nearly eight centuries. While somewhat of a competitive letdown, Murray’s shortcomings in the face of an all-time great aren’t quite the stuff of a herniated Atlas. He is still the second best player in the world, and he is still the best viable option for delaying the end of tennis history, which means, even at his worst, he’s still the game’s best wrinkle. 

Bryan Harvey writes in a variety of places around the internet and tweets @LawnChairBoys

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