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Andy Murray Was — And Is — Bigger Than Any Number

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

Other eras of tennis history have stirred the soul and roused great passions, but this era of men’s tennis — the era of tennis Sir Andrew Barron Murray occupied — has coexisted with the emergence of social media.

There was no blogging in the Borg-Connors-McEnroe-Lendl era. There was no #TennisTwitter when Rod Laver won the Grand Slam in 1969. The American newspaper industry had not collapsed when Pete Sampras began his reign over Wimbledon. This era of extraordinary men’s tennis has also been an era of extraordinary intimacy between the fans and the chroniclers of the sport. This close proximity has its good points and bad points, but this means one thing: Widespread public attitudes toward the larger-than-life players of this particular era have been easier to observe. Interactions with other people are commonplace and constant. If you follow this sport professionally, and you make it a point to engage with readers, you see what people think.

What have people thought about this era of men’s tennis?

Many topics keep circling back to the forefront of awareness and memory. Among them are these leaders:

1 – Roger Federer gets preferential treatment.

2 – There should be more tournaments on natural surfaces and fewer on hardcourts.

3 – Best of five sets forever!

4 – It’s the Big 3, NOT the Big 4!

Yes, that last statement has formed a huge part of the conversations I have participated in and witnessed as a lurker or outside party.

I preferred to refer to the Big 4 as long as Andy Murray was a force in men’s tennis. Murray hasn’t been a force since Wimbledon of 2017, when he suffered the injury against Sam Querrey which hounded him at the end of that quarterfinal match, and led to a prolonged period of physical discomfort and pain which has never fully left to this day. It has led to Murray’s declared intent to retire from tennis later this year — later potentially being very soon, or as late as the 2019 Wimbledon Championships.

Yet, even when Murray climbed to No. 1 at the end of 2016 by winning a second Wimbledon, a second Olympic singles gold medal, and the ATP Finals, plenty of fans got upset at mentions of the Big 4, as though Murray didn’t deserve to be included WITH Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. It seemed more important that Murray be separated from the Big 3 than bundled with them… and plenty of people felt very strongly about that.

In many ways, this was an utterly harmless, not-very-important sports-bar-style debate among people who love tennis. Who cares? So what? No one got hurt.

Yet, I have spent my adult life assessing the careers and legacies of athletes and coaches. How do they measure up? What is their place in history? What have they given to their professions? What have they meant to their sports?

No, these issues are not important the way child poverty or the welfare of immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border are important. Yet, these issues are — within their own small world — significant. If we take the time to talk and write about sports, and we continuously rethink and revisit the imprint a remarkable athlete has left behind, we might as well try to get it right.

It is a minor annoyance to give an athlete too much credit, but it is a profound disservice to give an athlete insufficient praise. Overrated competitors elicit an eyeroll, but the reality of underrated and underappreciated strivers leaves a more bitter taste in one’s mouth.

With this in mind, the passionate insistence on Murray being kept away from the Big 3, rather than being included in the Big 4, was — to me — the most unfair thing said about Murray during his shimmering career, which is now about to end and will clearly not attain another supreme trophy.

News flash: Murray was not as good as any member of the Big 3! Details at 11. We all know that fact — and we all knew it at the time — but something kept a large share of the tennis public from translating an awareness of that fact into a generous and appropriate appreciation of Murray’s larger place in the story of tennis.

He wasn’t a scrub or a bum or a failure for not measuring up to these three towering icons who happened to be better at tennis than he was, who happened to be more consistent than he was, who happened to own a greater capacity for dominance than he did.

Much as I often say that a match is defined not by the failures of the loser but by the excellence of the winner, so it also was — and is — that Murray winning far fewer majors and Masters titles than the Big 3 is not a commentary on how Murray fell short… but on how high the Big 3 climbed. It is all in how you choose to look at the situation. Was this career a manifestation of what Murray left unclaimed, or what his three even more accomplished peers managed to achieve?

If we are being fair — and moreover, if we can acknowledge extraordinary achievements for what they are — it can be only one way: The titles Murray didn’t win are far more the result of the phenomenal magnificence of the Big 3, far less about something Andy should have done but neglected to carry out.

Those who felt the acute need to focus on the Big 3 and deemphasize the Big 4 will say — as they have over the past few years — “But what about Stan Wawrinka? He won three majors just as Murray did, but usually delivered the goods in major finals!”

The obvious inference is that Wawrinka knew how to fight fire with fire against the Big 3 in huge matches, and thereby exceeded Murray in a particular way.

The proper response to that line of thought: Much as Murray’s lack of added hardware is not his failure but the Big 3’s success, so it is that Wawrinka is not to be diminished in a comparison with Murray. Rather, Murray’s consistency at the Masters 1000 level, the major quarterfinal level, the major semifinal level, and the major final level are all to be seen and appreciated for what they are.

Murray lived in the shadow of Federer and Nadal and Djokovic… and walks away from men’s tennis in the Open Era top 10 in major finals, semis and quarters reached, plus major-tournament matches played and won. All that in the face of the Big 3, not removed from it. All that knowing he had to coexist with those three players, not having freedom from them.

Yes, the 2012 Australian Open semifinals against Djokovic stung, and on a purely personal level, I can’t forget how he let a gong sound at the U.S. Open completely throw him off track against Kei Nishikori in the 2016 quarterfinals — when he had a great shot at getting to the final — but over the course of Murray’s career, I don’t recall too many other times when he played for really high stakes and lost a match he should have won.

He could have pushed Djokovic to five sets in a few matches he lost in four or three. He might have done the same with Federer and Nadal in a handful of situations. Yet, those are mere handfuls from many years of jousting with the three men who might be viewed as the best who ever lived, all coexisting in the same Golden Era of ATP tennis.

Let’s remember that for all the Big 3 took away from Sir Andy, he still greatly outclassed so many of his other peers, many of which had — I would argue — better pure ballstriking talent and natural tennis prowess:

Sir Andrew Barron Murray wasn’t on the same level as the Big 3. No one is arguing that he was.

It is true that he stood between the Big 3 and the rest of men’s tennis during the time he played this sport.

Yet, his immense collection of achievements is magnified BECAUSE the Big 3 took so much away from him, not IN SPITE of that very same fact.

It’s all in how you look at it… and if we are being fair to Andy Murray, the positive interpretation is the only interpretation I can respect.

Big 3, Big 4? You can have that debate if you still want it.

I prefer to focus on the reality that Andy Murray is a big presence in tennis.

The sport is paying tribute to a man who is not merely “a very good player who won a modest number of major titles,” but someone whose accomplishments ripple through the pages of history and reach into so many prominent competitions: Davis Cup, the Olympics, Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, all four majors (where he reached the final at least once), and the Masters 1000 tournaments.

Some will still look at Andy Murray’s tennis career and say, “He only did THAT MUCH,” before their voices trail off in sadness or disappointment.

Others will look at the same body of work and say, “He did THAT MUCH?!?!?!?!” They will be giddy with admiration and amazement.

Put me in that latter camp, the group of people who are impressed that Murray persevered to the extent he did, meriting that small but ever-so-significant shift in emphasis:

Andy Murray is far more a distinguished member of the Big 4 than an impoverished outsider who deserves to be banished from the Big 3’s neighborhood.

It’s all in how you look at it.

Andy Murray never looked better than he does today, and the people who wanted to die on the “Big 3, not Big 4” hill never looked smaller.

The giant legacy of Sir Andrew Barron Murray will hopefully have the last word.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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