Wimbledon 2018: Andy Murray and the state of British tennis
Andy Murray is unlikely to go too far at Wimbledon 2018, but his struggles highlight the lack of British options at SW19
Until the summer of 2013, one question that used to be common in India’s quizzing circles was about the last British man to win at Wimbledon. The answer? Fred Perry in 1936. A slightly difficult question would be about the last British man to reach a final. That was Bunny Austin in 1938.
But it all changed that summer, five years ago, when the Scotsman Andy Murray defeated Novak Djokovic in straight sets.
For Murray, however, the Wimbledon success came after several setbacks in Grand Slam finals. He lost the 2008 US Open, 2010 and 2011 Australian Open, and 2012 Wimbledon at the last hurdle before his first Slam win at Flushing Meadows in 2012. There would be another final loss at the Rod Laver Arena before he finally lifted the cherished singles trophy at SW19.
He won again in 2016. The year also saw him win an Olympic singles gold medal in Rio de Janeiro, his second after the 2012 Games. Murray’s 2016 season finished with a 78-9 win-loss record and nine trophies—one of the most significant of which was the season-ending World Tour Finals. The win over Djokovic in the summit clash in London propelled the Scot to the No.1 ranking for the first time.
But the relentless slog took its toll and he has since struggled for fitness. His mother and former coach, Judy, acknowledged last August that the grind of the preceding two years had been detrimental to her son’s health.
“The last two years have taken a lot out of him. But the tennis calendar is relentless, it’s 11 months of the year, there’s hardly any gaps to have a rest, and I kind of feel that it’s all caught up on him,” she told Reuters at the time.
Murray’s playing style puts huge demands on his body. It isn’t easy carrying his muscular 1.91m frame through the rigours of the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) tour, especially with his power game from the baseline. Slower courts and slower balls that encourage rallies may entertain fans but they don’t help extend playing careers.
After a year out owing to various injuries, including a hip surgery in January, Murray made his comeback at the Queen’s Club Tournament on 18 June. His ranking has now fallen to 156. In contrast, Wimbledon favourite Roger Federer is ranked No.2.
The 36-year-old Swiss player is undoubtedly reaping the rewards of his fluid style. His graceful movement and exceptional shot-making have played a huge role in helping him stay relatively injury-free and prolong his career while his challengers, Murray as well as Rafael Nadal and Djokovic—still in their early 30s—have struggled. The 20-time Grand Slam champion’s game couldn’t provide a greater contrast to that of his younger rivals.
As 2018 marks 50 years of the Open era, it would be a good place to compare the male Grand Slam winners then with the current crop. The 1968 French Open winner Ken Rosewall was a great exponent of the serve and volley game. He became better with age and remains the oldest man to have won a Slam, at 37. Rod Laver, the winner of Wimbledon that year, is synonymous with serve and volley. The fact that Arthur Ashe, the 1968 US Open winner, never went beyond the quarter-finals on the red clay of the French Open says it all about his game.
The Australian Open wouldn’t turn professional until 1969.
The difference in size now is also instructive. While Ashe’s 6ft, 1-inch frame would see him measure up to the majority of the current crop, Laver stood at 5ft, 8 inches and Rosewall was an inch shorter. Of the last 30 Wimbledon winners, only Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt have stood below 6ft, both missing the mark only by an inch.
No doubt the technological advancements in rackets and strings have also contributed to the current style in modern tennis, but that is not the full story.
There aren’t any real expectations of a Wimbledon win this summer for Murray, as he marks his slow return to competitive tennis after a hip surgery that many feared would end his career at the highest level.
Murray ended the long British wait for a men’s singles Slam winner but he is not the first in an assembly line of great players from the British Isles. He is merely an aberration. In the 30-year-old’s absence, Kyle Edmund, 23, has become the top-ranked Briton but expectations of a Wimbledon win from the South Africa-born player would be misplaced.
While the banked viewing area near the No.1 court at Wimbledon may have undergone the colloquial name change from Henman Hill to Murray Mound, it will be some time before the fans will be inclined to call it the Edmund Everest. The next best British hope, Cameron Norrie, turned professional only last year and has not gone beyond the second round at a Grand Slam.
In the women’s section, the last British Wimbledon winner was Virginia Wade, in 1977. It had been 40 years since a serious title tilt at a Grand Slam by a British woman, till Johanna Konta reached the Wimbledon semi-finals last year, losing to Venus Williams.
The 27-year-old, who represented her native Australia until 2012 and reached a career-high No.4 in the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) rankings last July, is currently outside the top 20 and couldn’t go beyond the second round at the two Grand Slams this year. She will be a long shot, and things are unlikely to be better after her—Heather Watson is barely hanging on to her top 100 ranking.
While two newly-announced national tennis academies will likely improve the lot of British tennis in the long run, betting on a British Wimbledon winner this summer may be a futile punt.
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