Dunblane’s finest, Andy Murray, has secured a second consecutive gold medal in the Olympics tennis men’s singles, making him the first man to ever win two.
The scale of this achievement simply cannot be overstated, given the fleeting nature of the standard elite tennis career. To stay at the top for one or two years is an incredible achievement, let alone four, and there is no doubt that tennis fans have been spoiled by the longevity of its most dominant stars – the Big Four of Murray, Novak Djokovic, the perhaps-fading Rafael Nadal and, most impressively, the evergreen 35-year-old Roger Federer (whose body might finally be catching up with him now he has been sidelined for the rest of the season by injury).
Don’t listen to the minority of naysayers who sneer at the notion of tennis as an Olympic sport. The roster of men’s singles gold medallists since it was reinstated into the Olympics in 1988 glitters with the likes of Andre Agassi and Rafael Nadal.
Tell Novak Djokovic – whose last two appearances at the Games have seen him dumped out of medal contention by the same man, Argentina’s Juan Martin Del Potro – that Olympic tennis doesn’t mean anything. Tennis players take extraordinary pride in playing for their country, whether it’s at the Davis Cup, the Fed Cup or the Olympics.
The first year Djokovic became number one in the world, 2011, was one of the most extraordinary individual seasons the sport has ever witnessed. The Serb was unbeatable, at times unplayable, for months – it took the magic of Federer at the semi-finals of the French to end one of the longest unbeaten streaks in tennis history – 41 in a row when it was all said and done.
Where did this year of incredible inspiration come from? In no small part, it seems to have come down to the catalysing euphoria of winning the Davis Cup for Serbia at the tail-end of the 2010 season.
Similarly, Murray himself won the trophy as part of the British team at the end of last season, securing the country’s first Davis Cup for 79 years. Look at him since: a grand slam finalist twice, a second Wimbledon crown, and now – a second gold medal.
Djokovic wept as he left the court following his first-round defeat to Del Potro at this Games, just as he cried when he lost the bronze medal match to the same man at London 2012.
Why did he cry? In part, because from the point of view of a tennis player, the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo will seem like a very long way away indeed.
Murray understands this, and has done since he himself was dumped out of the first round of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 by Yen-Hsun Lu. He never forgot that loss, and has now used it to propel himself into unprecedented back-to-back Olympic singles titles.
And yes – it is unprecedented. Murray was right to correct the BBC’s bumbling John Inverdale and point out that the Williams sisters have more than one gold medal to their name. But they only have one women’s singles gold medal apiece.
Simply put, what Murray achieved last night has not been done before.
At points last night, Del Potro didn’t seem far away from inflicting the same fate on Murray as he did on Djokovic, in a gruelling four-set marathon full of drama and incredible heart from both men. This was not a fun match for Murray fans to watch, nor was it consistently high-quality tennis throughout – the unforced errors count was high and the first serve percentages from both men low – but when it was good, it was very good.
To see Del Potro back on court this Games and playing so well is some of the best news the sport has had in years. Here was a player some thought might never play again after his elite career was scuppered by injury not once but twice, leaving the crowd enraptured (and Murray fans terrified) by the quality and ferocious power of his groundstrokes, particularly his lethal forehand.
None of this should have been too much of a surprise. Del Potro claimed his one and only grand slam at the relatively spritely age of 20 back in 2009, blasting Nadal off the court in the semi-finals right in the Spaniard’s prime and then defeating Federer in five sets in a classic final.
It was arguably Del Potro’s weakening of Djokovic after their relentless five-set semi-final at Wimbledon 2013 that helped Murray win his first Wimbledon crown so convincingly that year.
If Del Potro really is back, and can keep fit, he will contend for Grand Slams again – and no-one deserves that opportunity more.
But last night, in the end, was Murray’s night. Leaving aside all other aspects of his game for the moment, there is simply something about him just now, a ruthless resolve and impregnable self-belief.
Murray endured some serious scrapes in his run to the final, not least to the Italian Fabio Fognini and Steve Johnson of the US, who both led with breaks in the deciding sets of their encounters with Murray.
But what has marked the Scot this week has been an utter unwillingness to lose – even when he has not necessarily been the better player in all of his matches. That’s the mark of a champion – to win even when not playing one’s best – and should worry the rest of the field as the US open approaches, not least the world no. 1, Djokovic.
Djokovic is in fact not certain to even play at Flushing Meadows, where the final slam of the year will kick off in a fortnight. His defeat to Del Potro in Rio was followed by an announcement that he had pulled out of the Cincinatti Masters – the final warm-up tournament before the US Open – on account of a wrist injury.
In truth, the Serb has been out of sorts ever since attaining the long-sought goal of a first French Open crown, which he achieved by defeating Murray over four sets in June and, in doing so, completing the career Grand Slam. His next appearance, defending his Wimbledon title, saw him knocked out in the third round by Sam Querrey, world no. 41.
A tournament win in Toronto suggested Djokovic would be back to his best for Rio, but his Olympics bane Del Potro had other ideas. What now for the world no. 1 – and indeed, can he stay at that ranking for long with a resurgent, hungry Murray at his heels?
Murray is now on an unbeaten streak of his own of 18 matches – a career best for him. It seems difficult to imagine he can continue that streak through the Cincinatti Masters starting this week unless he withdraws from the tournament, given how exhausted he is likely to be.
But it’s the US Open that’s the next big prize, and should he manage to cap a glorious golden summer in the same way he did in 2012 by win at Flushing Meadows again, Novak Djokovic’s grip on that No. 1 spot will begin to look more and more like it’s slipping.