Andy Murray's 6-2 6-1 6-4 win over Roger Federer in the final of the Olympic men's tennis tournament caps the career of one sports greatest nearly men; and represents the complete and utter vindication of one of the biggest talents tennis has ever produced who many thought could never win a 'big one'.
Murray's rise to prominence in 2005 came on the backdrop of the careers of Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski coming to a close. At British tennis's lowest ebb, the overwhelming pressure of the British media on a gangly 17 year old who hadn't grown into his body yet and struggled mightily with fitness and endurance, he gave the tennis public a taste of what he had within him defeating 14th seeded Radek Stepanek and advancing to Round 3 of Wimbledon before his legs gave out from under him when two sets up against the experienced David Nalbandian; his back spasmed on the court, and he crashed out, just a boy, not yet a man.
Seven years on; and Murray is one of the fittest players on tour; and regularly outlasts opponents in five set matches. This is just one of several examples of the way Murray has dedicated himself to his craft completely to become the best he possible could be. Having left home at 15 to train in Spain, Murray also swapped ice cold beers for ice cold baths; becoming teetotal and committing fully to a Spartan fitness regime, determined not to rest on his natural talent and shot-making ability.
The ride however, has not been easy. Rafael Nadal was his contemporary in age; but his rise to the top of the game was much more meteoric than Murray's gradual ascent and a Wimbledon defeat in straight sets in 2008 to his Spanish friend only seemed to serve to underline the gap in quality between the two. Murray enjoyed a string of good results against Roger Federer; but it was Nadal who Murray simply couldn't get a handle on - Nadal was doing what Murray did - playing reactive, counter punching tennis, but he was stronger, faster, fitter. Murray didn't have his forehand, or control of spin; playing Nadal was like playing a better version of himself who he simply couldn't best.
So Murray redoubled his efforts and hit the gym; and worked on his upper body strength not only for endurance, but to work on the weight of groundstrokes that eluded him - never more clearly shown than in a string of Slam defeats to players with powerful forehand groundstrokes, like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (Australian Open 2008), Fernando Verdasco (Australian Open 2009), Fernando Gonzales (Roland Garros 2009) and Marin Cilic (US Open 2009) - all very good top ten tennis players, but the sorts that Federer and Nadal had been sweeping up with ease on a consistent basis.
As Nadal's game had evolved to nullify Federer's strengths and usurp his place as world number one, along came Novak Djokovic; who despite his Australian Open win of 2008 was very much thought of part of the chasing pack, and on the level of Murray - perhaps even behind the Scot, who briefly rose to World number 2; while the hot headed Serb fought with the crowd; with Federer, struggled with an ill-advised change in racquet manufacturer. Murray still seemed like the most likely to break the 'Fedal' duopoly; and a series of Masters Titles on hard courts underlined this fact.
But a more focused Djokovic refined his groundstrokes and defence and brought out a self-assurance and confidence that had already existed, and began bludgeoning the top two - Federer, once invincible, suddenly looked old and frail - Nadal's stout defence was broken and made to look flimsy by the relentless barrage of the Djokovic forehand; and as Djokovic compiled arguably the greatest year in tennis history in 2011 - finishing with a 70-6 win loss record, winning 43 matches in a row, winning three Grand Slams and finishing the year the undisputed World number 1 - again, Murray was left in the shade; yesterday's prospect, now not just not as good as Federer and Nadal, but not in Djokovic's league either.
Part of the struggle for Murray was that in any given tournament; to win his maiden Grand Slam - which by now, in his mid-20s, people had stopped saying 'when' and started saying 'if' - he probably had to overcome two of Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer in two matches, often in two days. The US Open of 2009 best exemplified this, after pulling out all the stops to defeat Rafael Nadal in an incredible, rain delayed semi-final; Murray was swept aside by a well-rested Federer in the final, who was at his imperious best and won his 5th straight title at Flushing Meadows. Djokovic would thwart Murray once; and Federer another twice; most recently at Wimbledon in 2012; when Murray would break down in tears after the defeat, having finally won a set in a Grand Slam final; but roused the Swiss back to his imperious pomp. You could have been forgiven for thinking that winning a big one would just never happen; having been so close.
This is why this week; and this win; was so monumentally huge for Andy Murray. A nightmare draw was navigated for the loss of only a single set. Rather than being broken by his experience at Wimbledon a month prior, Murray was galvanised it and unleashed a barrage of attacking tennis that was fuelled not of desperation, but of desire, to fulfil his destiny; and create a legacy of his own making; not written by those who want to put him in a box marked 'nearly made its'.
The denial of Federer the Olympic Gold he so desired, and his career deserved is one of those cruel moments in Sport where the fates remind us that we can't have it all. So often Murray's conqueror; Federer will surely not be back in Rio in 4 years' time as a contender to the one item missing from his CV. But today he was demolished by a younger, hungrier player; who went toe to toe with him from the baseline; attacked Federer's strengths and showed no fear at any point, despite the immense pressure not just from the media and the home crowd; but from within.
His detractors have pointed to many things in Murray's career - overuse of the drop shot was an early one; but it has since become arguably the best in the game. His attitude was defeatist - now people are beginning to recognise his expression for determination, rather than indifference. He wasn't fit enough - now he is an endurance athlete. He wasn't strong enough- his groundstrokes against Novak Djokovic at the Olympics were simply too hot to handle. He was too passive - Roger Federer might disagree with that assessment as he watched line after line require a new coating of titanium pigment after a never ending onslaught of shots from the Scot kept the Swiss on the back foot. And most of all; they said he couldn't get it done in a 5 set final; particularly not against Federer. Now he has; and the questions have all been answered.
There are still those that will say that Olympic Gold does not equate to winning a Slam - and maybe they're right; in ordinary circumstances. But these were no ordinary circumstances - returning to the scene of ones greatest defeat just a month later; to exact revenge, and enjoy your greatest moment as a professional; at an Olympic games held in the city you live in is rarer than a once in a lifetime happening. Andy Murray may never achieve the success Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic have - with such vaunted competition; he may not ever win a slam. But this Gold medal success is his moment; his shining achievement; his legacy. Few athletes have ever dedicated themselves to their craft and embodied the personification of an Olympian better than Andy Murray has; which is why this, his finest hour, is the most fitting tribute to the man.