Andy Murray: the Big Four’s Sideman

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What is the place of Andy Murray in the modern game? Rightful member of the “Big Four”, the all-conquering elite who have gobbled up virtually every Slam in the last twelve years? Or is Murray more of an upstart, a noisy rebel, leading the doomed mutiny against tennis royalty, a sort of baseball-capped, sweatband-heavy Watt Tyler?

Let’s look at the numbers. Two of the most commonly used barometers for greatness in tennis are Slams won and weeks spent at No. 1. Murray contributes a measly 5% to the “Big Four”s’ Slam haul and has never been ranked No. 1 in the world   this, in fact, being the first time he has finished a season ranked inside the top two. 

Contribution to ‘Big Four’ Slams (%) Contribution to ‘Big Four’ weeks at no.1(%)
Novak Djokovic 23 28
Roger Federer 40 49
Rafael Nadal 32 23
Andy Murray 5 0

But Murray is the youngest member of the “Big Four”, I hear you cry. With Roger Federer edging towards retirement, Rafael Nadal struggling technically, and the so-called next generation nowhere in sight, Murray could be entering the most fertile years of his career. Well, not quite.

Over the last two seasons, Murray went 2 for 20 against Federer, Nadal, and Novak Djokovic, making a solitary Slam final. No one has ever questioned Murray’s ability to dispose of the Billy Bunters of the tennis world, but, in the last two years, that is all he has done. When the ground gets a bit bumpy, Murray doesn’t just lose, he folds meekly. Against the big weapons of Federer and Stan Wawrinka, Murray has lost his last three matches to both without picking up a set, being handed a bagel and two breadsticks in the process. There have been times during these encounters (think last year’s World Tour Finals) when Murray has proved less an opponent and more a sort of canvas for Federer and Stan to display their finest artwork.

Admittedly, from Wimbledon 2012 to Wimbledon 2013, Murray was making ground up on his rivals. He won Olympic Gold, picked up two Slams, one in New York and one in London, and came close in two other Slams, losing tight finals to Djokovic and Federer. With coach Ivan Lendl’s voice in his ear, reassuring him, urging him on, Murray closed in on the breakaway pack: Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal. Since undergoing back surgery at the end of 2013, though, all we have witnessed is a wind-beaten Murray slowly swallowed up by the peloton.  

Murray is the ultimate sideman of the “Big Four”. He is your mate from school who was never really in the group. Milhouse from the Simpsons, Bez from the The Happy Mondays, Clyde from PacMan. He spends his matches getting pulled from sideline to sideline, as if doing an imaginary bleep test, his opponent plays swingball with his second serve, and, as a final humiliation, fans shove RF caps in his face for him to sign. If a “Big Four” selfie was taken, Federer, Djokovic and Nadal would all be smiling in the foreground with the Murray a few steps to their left, looking as awkward as Ashley Cole, chuntering away, back-hunched, grimacing as if he was about to call the trainer.

So, if Murray doesn’t belong alongside Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal, does that then mean that we ought to lump him in with the also-rans, the forever-chasing pack? That would do him a disservice. Murray may have the same number of Grand Slams as Stan Wawrinka, but the Scot has unquestionably enjoyed a far more distinguished career: more career titles, better record against the top players, greater consistency, etc. Tomas Berdych and David Ferrer are perhaps more classic examples of this breed of player both having spent seemingly their whole careers in the lower tranche of the top ten, squabbling over third tier tour events and Murray’s record easily trumps theirs, too.

Win % against Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal Career titles
Andy Murray 34 35
Tomas Berdych 16 12
David Ferrer 15 26
Stan Wawrinka 14 11

It is perhaps for this reason that Murray was yoked to the elite in the first place. The tennis world had to find a place for the Scot and, partly because of his obvious superiority to Berdych and co., partly because his career briefly appeared to be on the same trajectory as Djokovic’s, people mistakenly lobbed him in with arguably the three greatest players ever.

So, after all this, what is Murray’s place in men’s tennis? Murray is elusive, he defies categorisation, neither “Big Four” nor second tier. He is the chasm between the best and the rest, a vital checkpoint for any young player rising up the ranks. If you can consistently beat Murray, you are ready to challenge for the big prizes. Win against Andy Murray, you complete Tennis on Professional. Now replay the level on World Class in order to win a Slam.

By Tom Dry and Harry Dry

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