By André Rolemberg
When things are really huge, humans have a hard time perceiving them.
We can’t tell the difference between one million and one billion in our heads.
We have no idea what the speed of light actually is, aside from the theory.
Most of us can’t fathom what it feels like to win a Grand Slam tennis tournament — the work needed to get there, the mental effort, the fitness, the pressure, the level of the players we’d have to face.
According to Wikipedia, 56 men have won a Grand Slam event since the Open Era started in 1968. 56 people is a simple party that can be fed with a bunch of pizzas and six-packs of beer, and it wouldn’t even be that expensive for a middle-class group of university students.
As of 2020 there were 7.97 billion people in world.
A maximum total of four men a year can win a Grand Slam title. There are 3.97 billion males in the world (assigned male at birth), which means at least roughly one man out of one billion will win one of the available titles each year, under normal circumstances.
If it were a million, we would pretend we know the difference but we don’t. It’s absolutely huge. Winning a Grand Slam event is something so rare we can’t even properly think about it.
And if you’re Andy Murray in the first years of his career as a top player, you had to factor in that that Roger Federer was the most decorated major champion in the world in 2012 with 17 titles (he’d just won Wimbledon that year), while Rafael Nadal had 11 and Novak Djokovic had five. Murray had lost exclusively to Federer (three times) and Djokovic (once) in his previous four major finals.
But it was never quite enough for Andy Murray, was it? On top of all this pressure, Murray was, as many put it, carrying the weight of a nation, with the last British male Grand Slam champion being Fred Perry in 1936 — in 2012 a 76-year wait for a new champion from the nation that developed tennis into the modern version we know today.
This time, getting to the U.S. Open final after being defeated in four sets by Roger Federer at Wimbledon, a familiar foe: Novak Djokovic.
Murray had lost to Djokovic twice in Grand Slam matches by then: in straight sets at the 2011 Australian Open final, and in an absolute epic in five sets at the same tournament in 2012.
The same year, in a final this time, they played another hard court match at the U.S. Open, and Djokovic was once again the defending champion.
With what seemed to be the weight of space and time on his shoulders, Andy still managed to inch closer and closer to his goal: winning a Grand Slam title.
Of course, we all know the real goal was Wimbledon, but beating one of your main rivals in any Grand Slam final would be another big step towards the ultimate objective, possibly even bigger than reaching the Wimbledon final earlier that year. The U.S. Open would do just fine.
It is not surprising that no one could understand the pressure Andy Murray was under.
It is not farfetched to think that not even Murray himself could imagine what would mean to win a Grand Slam. It is a feat too immense to comprehend, to wrap his head around.
And so, at that fateful U.S. Open, he just played.
Seemingly encouraged by his results in the summer — including a dominant win against Roger Federer to win the first of two Olympic gold medals — Murray played aggressively in the windy conditions inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. The mindset, along with Murray’s trademark speed and consistency that allows him to stay in points for way longer than a normal human being should (and win them too, often), could probably be explained by a new strategy born from Murray’s previous losses in major finals: play one set, one game, one point at a time.
Djokovic was visibly the one most bothered by the windy conditions that day, but that didn’t impede the rallies from reaching ridiculous lengths (an early one went 54 shots) — a feat even more so impressive in the conditions, where most would be mentally defeated by the invisible opponent within the first 20 minutes. Murray started a little shy, rolling forehands and using his counterpunching skills to hold serve and stay in the match, allowing him an early break.
Djokovic surged back, as he so often does, and the tiebreak followed. It was a mammoth 22-point tie breaker where both had chances, but where Murray seemed just that more extra-motivated.
As he won the opener: a classic Murray celebration. The strategy continued, this was just a tennis match, forget about everything else.
In the second set, it seemed like a new Murray was born: perfect from everywhere on court, completely unfazed by the wind against a struggling Djokovic, the Brit went on to take a 4–0 lead.
Today it seems obvious, but back in 2012, Djokovic was just starting to cement his reputation: that of a player who is nearly impossible to beat, no matter how great your lead. And when he had his back against the wall, he started firing. From 0–4 down, Djokovic got one of the breaks back.
As Murray tried to serve for a two-sets-to-love lead, could the pressure have finally pushed it too hard against the door of Murray’s psyche? Djokovic’s efforts certainly started to pay off, with far more aggressive shots starting from the return, but Murray started missing regular shots into the net and well out.
76 years. One in a billion. The final piece needed to form the most exclusive club in tennis, the Big Three, right in front of him — again.
Maybe Murray thought about it, for long enough to remember what he was about to do. And that had a price, almost too costly at that crucial moment in his match — in his career.
But the then best-player-on-tour-without-a-grand-slam forced himself back into the strategy, and it was his turn to do what Andy Murray does best, and not miss again until the set was over.
7–5. The world #4 muscled it out, first being rewarded with a “Djokosmash,” then watching an unforced error from the Serb’s forehand which came with the break, the set, and a crucial two-sets-to-love lead over the defending champion.
It must have taken its toll mentally. With a much more muted celebration — a mere look to his box — Andy just didn’t seem the same player that won the first set like it was just another day of competition. At that point, he seemed like someone who knew exactly what he was doing. And that was not good for him.
Suddenly, it was Djokovic who forgot what the situation was. His incredible attacking game that saw him take over the tennis world in 2011 came to life, especially after an epic rally at 0–1, 40–30 where he ended with a phenomenal volley, followed by a fierce celebration. Then, it seemed as if this would be a one-way traffic, to the horror of Murray fans.
Engaging the packed Arthur Ashe Stadium with his famous roaring celebrations, Novak Djokovic was more akin to the protagonist role, as Andy Murray seemed to battle against himself to once again play just to win the next point and not to put to rest a lengthy Grand Slam drought for British men’s tennis.
The match remained of fine quality, but the mental battle had a clear winner in the third and fourth sets. Something needed to change for Murray. He needed to reset. He needed to forget.
This isn’t Novak Djokovic. This isn’t Arthur Ashe Stadium. This isn’t a Grand Slam. This isn’t the US Open. This isn’t for history.
It’s a tennis match. It’s for competition. It’s for Andy Murray and the thrill of winning a great tennis rally.
Right at the start of the fifth and final set, already something felt different for Andy. Deep breath, stretching, speaking his usual “come on!” to himself as he waited to return serve. Perhaps serving second in the fifth helped him. As a player who has been always behind the Big Three, Murray came to love the challenge. To be the underdog. Returning serve can feel this way sometimes, especially at the start of a set.
Showing signs that he was not done yet (words he would famously say himself, coincidentally in that same stadium, years later), Murray broke right away in the fifth. Every point he won, he gave a small–but clear–fist pump to show everyone watching that he was still very much in contention. It didn’t matter that he had yet to beat Djokovic at a major, it didn’t matter that he himself had yet to win one while Novak had five. All that mattered was to win the next point.
Even his classic negativity was making a comeback when he lost points. And he was getting louder.
He was back. Just another tennis match.
While Djokovic did recover one of the breaks down 0–3 in the fifth, the damage was already done by a short lackluster period. Trying to get back into the final, the then five-time major champion went on the attack again, hitting hard and producing some of the mesmerizingly effortless groundstrokes only he is capable of. He managed to hold his serve in a tough game to narrow Murray’s lead to 3–2. He roared, and celebrated the micro-achievement in the scope of the match, not knowing this would be the last game he would win at that year’s U.S. Open.
In the blink of an eye, it was 4–2 to Murray. In what was possibly the worst return game of the match for the all-time great Serb, all the effort and momentum from the previous game was completely nullified. In contrast, Andy Murray raced through the game with four speedy and well placed first serves — three of them drawing return errors, and an ace on game point.
The match clock was now at four hours and 45 minutes.
Now, as tends to be the case when these two face each other, the match was as physical as it gets. Rallies averaged 6.9 shots at this point late in the match, and the longest one was a grueling, high-quality 54-shot point. Surprisingly, but comprehensibly, Djokovic started feeling some discomfort in his right leg. Perhaps this time it was too much, a reminder that he’s only human after all.
Yet-to-become Sir Andy Murray, on the other hand, was very much in the ascendancy. With Djokovic shooting for the fences, even though he was already well on the way to become one of tennis’ greatest players, his situation could not look any worse. Already down a break, now a double break in the deciding set, a loss looked inevitable against a fresh and motivated Murray — one of the fittest, fastest players on tour, and arguably one of the best defenders of all time.
“I am getting closer.”
After suffering a loss to Roger Federer at the Wimbledon final only a couple months earlier, Andy Murray said those words, trying to lighten the mood after certainly the most painful loss of his career. He surely meant he was getting closer to a title at his home slam, in front of his home crowd.
Here he was, now at 5–2 in the final set of the final Grand Slam tournament of the year. He had never been that close now at the US Open.
He looked as fierce as ever after getting the break and a chance to serve for his maiden major trophy. Fist pumping, shouting “let’s go, come on” to himself, putting on his well-known, mean-looking game face, showing his teeth and angry eyes, like an animal in defiance of his challenger.
A medical time-out ensued for Novak Djokovic. His legs were finally giving in. Andy was up and ready to serve quite some time before the break would be over. Hitting the ball against the tarp in the back of the court, he looked almost like an eager kid just waiting on his coach so he could start practice.
He didn’t look like he was ready to get it over with. He seemed to want to play for the next point, to compete. He looked impatient, not to get to the trophy and out of there, off with the pressure, but to get into a rally. To play tennis.
It would seem that he did not have his mind anywhere near the occasion. The situation he was in did not correspond to his attitude. The years, the players before him, the history, even his own failed attempts seemed forgotten, like it was someone else’s problem altogether.
The game starts. Rally, 15–0.
First serve, called out. Challenged, overruled. 30–0.
The US Open crowd goes wilder now. It’s no use trying to control them.
Another rally. Another challenge. Djokovic hits a forehand which Hawkeye shows sailed long.
Missed first serve. Djokovic forces Murray into the net with a defensive forehand slice, then hits a lob which Murray can’t control, leaving it sitting up for the Serb to punch a winner. One match point saved, two to go.
First serve, down the middle. Out.
Second serve, in the middle of the box. Djokovic hits a flat forehand down the line…
Game, set, and match, Andy Murray: 7–6 (10), 7–5, 2–6, 3–6, 6–2.
And at that historical moment, Andy Murray, now a Grand Slam champion, fist pumped like it was a normal point. He looked at his box, game face still on.
It looked almost funny for that moment.
But, half a second later, he started walking, like he had just woken up. Looking to his left and right, now walking towards the net for the handshake, he threw his racket, put his hands over his face. He stopped walking. Now crouching he was, in clear disbelief.
All this time trying to forget, fighting against the pressure, playing a tennis match like any other.
Now he remembered.
The weight of his achievement dawned on him. All of Britain’s waiting. All the expectation. All the failures. All the people watching him, he could see it all, he just could not react in any other way except like a young boy who got a dog for his birthday and was so happy he froze. You could still tell he was happy, but he didn’t really understand that yet.
It looked like he had forgotten for a second. Now, he remembered.
And now he’ll be remembered forever.
Monday, September 10, 2012. The U.S. Open Championships.
Andy Murray, Great Britain’s first male Grand Slam champion since Fred Perry at Wimbledon, 1936.