If the trajectory of Andy Murray’s career up until this point has told us anything, it was that he was never supposed to get to here. It didn’t matter if it was Federer, Nadal or Djokovic who was no. 1, he was always the “other guy”, the one who was good enough to test them, yet never good enough to surpass them – but with his win over Djokovic in the World Tour Finals, he finally has.
Murray may have taken the top spot after winning in Paris, but it was his fairly comfortable 6-3, 6-4 win over the Serb in London that removed any doubt as to whether he deserved to be there. That might seem a weird notion given he’s the reigning Wimbledon and Olympic champion, but it’s been a weird year – we lost Federer and Nadal to injury, Gael Monfils finally made a World Tour Finals, while Nick Kyrgios somehow became even more immature – so when you consider that the man who finished the year on top started it getting handled by the same opponent he rolled in the WTFs, you can see where I’m coming from.
First facing each other in the Australian Open final, all signs pointed towards 2016 being more-of-the-same for Murray. A 6-1, 7-5, 7-6 win for Djokovic, the match largely played into the narratives set up by their previous 30 encounters, with Murray being ground-down by the Serb’s brilliance, his own foibles not helping either. Nerves cost Murray any chance at the first set, but even as the match shifted back into balance it was Djokovic who was taking the initiative, establishing footholds with early breaks – a product of his consistent pressure in return games – and while Murray was able to claw his way back, he wasn’t able to match Djokovic’s level when it really counted, costing him a service game at 5-5 in the second, as well as the third-set tiebreaker. Perhaps had Murray escaped the third set it could’ve been a different story, but as it was Djokovic reigned supreme in almost every area statistically, winning 67% of his service points and 44% of return points for a dominance ratio of 1.32, per tennis abstract. And while Murray tried to take control of baseline rallies, he lacked the offensive consistency to do so – case-in-point, his 7 extra winners came at the cost of 28 more unforced errors. Stats aside, in almost every circumstance Djokovic was much more assured from the back of the court, taking full advantage of his more fluid forehand to keep Murray on the defensive. Afterwards, Djokovic acknowledged there was “no doubt” he was playing “the best tennis of my life”, and clearly Murray didn’t have an answer.
Fast-forward to London, and the tables had comprehensively turned. Despite their vastly different lead-ins to the final – Murray’s a three-hour slugfest with Milos Raonic, Djokovic’s a barely one-hour waltz past Kei Nishikori – it was Murray who rose to the occasion. It didn’t matter how he’d got to the final, let alone number one, Murray was playing like he deserved to be there. This time it was Djokovic playing catch-up, but when the opportunity came in the final, he simply didn’t have the goods to pull it off.
His rebuilt offensive game firing on all cylinders, Murray was now willing and able to step in and dictate off both wings, and it paid major dividends against Djokovic, who could never find a similar gear. Murray was getting the better of backhand-to-backhand exchanges, but more notably (and in a complete reversal of Melbourne), it was now the Scot’s forehand that was causing Djokovic all sorts of problems, as Murray was simply doing more with it, both in terms of accelerating through the ball and manipulating the Serb’s court position. Statistically Murray won 68% of service points (largely thanks to the first-strike tennis he played on made first-serves, winning 27/32 points) and 39% of return points, adding up to a dominance ratio of 1.22. In response Djokovic was inconsistent at best, and toothless at worst. His depth-of-return was still exceptional, but he couldn’t follow it onto the attack with any regularity, while gimme put-aways were missed at an alarming rate, leaving us with a picture of a player who was more exasperated than he was engaged.
It may have only been a best-of-three sets affair, but the win was undoubtedly one of the most important of Murray’s career. The match was set up as a final test of the player Murray had become over the past six months, against a man who knew him unlike any other opponent, and he passed with flying colours. London may have been only eleven months removed from Melbourne, but Murray made it feel like an eon with this victory. There’s no way of knowing how long it will last, but with a number one ranking, and now an entirely new outlook on his rivalry with Djokovic, 2016 was unquestionably the year of Andy Murray.