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Growing up as a sports fan, there were always things you copied.
Everyone had a version of Kapil Dev’s bowling action and Sachin Tendulkar’s straight drive. The weirder ones among us—or was it just me?—found England middle-order batsman Robin Smith’s stance particularly intriguing; his back-lift so high you wondered how he ever timed anything right.
When you played football, you dribbled past other children like Diego Maradona.
Boris Becker’s service action, I’m pretty certain, is still hardwired into the motor memories of many fans…the German mechanically rocking back and forth, bent very slightly at the waist, his arms ramrod straight, then the high toss, the tiny leap and finally the big, booming serve.
When you rushed to the net in imaginary tennis games, you always did it like Stefan Edberg (at least in your head). Roger Federer’s airy, flairy single-handed backhand and Rafael Nadal’s rip-roaring top-spin forehand will stay in the head long past their eventual retirements.
And tennis’ new world No.1 Andy Murray? Nothing at all. He’s got to where he has with a game built around a collection of workman-like serves, consistently effective returns, slumped shoulders and a grumpy doggedness that’s as inspiring as it is endearing (yes, he might play the best lob in the world of tennis, but the lob itself is such an unglamorous shot that it doesn’t really count).
To rise to No.1 with a game so limited is fascinating in itself. To do so having played his entire career alongside three seemingly untouchable modern-day greats makes his achievement even more remarkable.
When Murray made his debut in 2005, Federer was in the middle of a 237-week stint as world No.1. Then came the era of Nadal’s dominance, the Spaniard’s defensive game built piece-by-piece to compete against Federer’s offensive brilliance.
Just when you thought the two would walk into the sunset engaged in never-ending hand-to-hand combat, with everyone else just standing by and watching, came Novak Djokovic—the Serbian marrying the best of Federer’s silken touch and Nadal’s untiring legs to tremendous effect.
All this time, Murray slogged on in the background, repeatedly coming up short against the Big Three. He lost six out of eight Grand Slam finals against Federer or Djokovic (this year’s Wimbledon final was the first he played against someone other than those two), while he has been 2-7 head-to-head against Nadal at Grand Slams. His best, it kept getting reinforced, was not good enough. He was destined to play out his career as tennis’ longest-serving No.4.
The biggest driver for elite athletes is the pursuit of victory—imagine going through your career being told repeatedly that these victories were unattainable. Playing every day knowing that while you are very, very good, there are three others who are better?
Weaker men with better all-round games would have broken under the pressure. Murray sulked, he scowled, he threw many, many tantrums. But he never threw in the towel.
In that sense, his new status is a victory for imperfection. Federer at his best was perfect, Nadal at his best was perfect, Djokovic at his peak was perfect. Andy Murray at his peak is an honest trier, super fit but always erratic. If there’s one thing he’s been perfect at, it’s been at giving it all he has, rally after rally, game after game, set after set, match after match, week after week, year after year...
Vinod Kambli once said that while he took the stairs to the top of world cricket, his schoolmate Tendulkar took the elevator. In those terms, Murray’s journey to the top has involved climbing up moss-covered water pipes because the elevator was full and the stairs were broken.
Deepak Narayanan, a journalist for nearly 20 years, now runs an events space The 248 Collective in Goa. He tweets at @deepakyen