Andy Murray is a winner in almost every way imaginable. He’s young, wealthy, successful, famous and, for two weeks each year, a symbol of national pride for two nations (Scotland and greater Britain).
He’s also the fourth-best player in an era where the three better players could arguably be the three best ever. This makes Andy Murray, come the final Sunday of four tournaments on three continents each year, a loser.
It happened for the fourth time today, as he took the first set from the ageless Roger Federer, but then couldn’t hold on. The result was better than his first three Grand Slam finals, each of which was a sweep for his opponent. And it’s the best he’s ever done at Wimbledon, the British tournament where British men are such gracious hosts that they’ve refused to win for nearly eight decades. But all it did was recall the “Talladega Nights” quote: “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”
Tennis announcers are usually more gracious; they refer to Grand Slam winners as “champions,” and while “non-champions” are clearly a class below, they may still be “winners,” or “great competitors,” or another midlevel compliment. And the larger world has surprisingly acknowledged Murray’s dilemma, with many pre-emptive “he didn’t choke” columns — where it has pilloried athletes in team sports who couldn’t win it all. But still, ESPN.com’s coverage through this final inclauded this link: “Bryant: Murray needs this,” and the hometown press has had its (mostly supercilious) objections.
Well, Andy Murray may feel he needs it — for his legacy, for the short-term to get people off his back, to make his country proud. But it’s really the fans (and Murray’s girlfriend, judging by her expressions) who need this; we need to know that he’s won the big one, that he’s a “winner,” or not only a winning player, but also a champion. Being a champion elevates him beyond the masses; greatness for us is not merely being very good. Furthermore, regardless of results, we need to second-guess and assess Murray through our lens, and that means in almost all cases dividing people into two classes: The winners and losers, with a little bit of gray area for scrappy underdogs who almost win and champions who were either too surly, cheated or weren’t champions enough for what we demanded.
If running cross country in college taught me anything, it’s that you can be really good at something while knowing thousands — literally — of people who are much better than you. My rule for races was this: If I ran the race properly, I could beat people of my talent level or worse. I might even beat people 5% better than me through better strategy and winning the mind games that conditions and competitors fleetingly present during races. But anyone who was 10% (or more) physically better than me was probably going to win unless they did something stupid or were unduly injured or fatigued. I couldn’t beat them; I could only do my best to present a situation where they might lose.
It’s still too early to say that Murray is in that position. But it is also impossible to say that he has truly blown a major against Nadal, Djokovic or Federer. They’ve always been the better player, and they’ve failed to crumble. Murray has not always played exquisitely, but it didn’t matter. Even today, he set up a situation where Federer could lose. He did not. That’s not “winning,” but Murray did not lose. He was beaten. How can we chastise him for that?
We celebrate Roger Federer, as we should, for his embodiment of what God’s tennis would look like. But we should also celebrate Andy Murray, who at No. 4 of 1,925 does his job better than 99.84% of the people in his line of work. He’s exceedingly talented, hard-working and relentless in his effort, and while he happens to fail, that only makes him a bit more like all of us. That’s not being “almost good enough.” That’s not choking, or underachieving or a sign of moral inferiority. It’s called doing one’s best and letting the chips fall where they may.
For each of us, every day is failing. We can only try to have our successes be more in number and meaning than our shortcomings. I think, and hope, Murray knows this and keeps fighting.