Before 2012, the year Andy Murray won his first Grand Slam title and an Olympic gold, there was a rather unfortunate saying associated with him — always the bridesmaid, never the bride. There was another, less pleasant word to describe his growing collection of runner-up trophies — "Choker", considering Serbian Novak Djokovic was the "Djoker".
The Scot had after all had shown great promise since he won the US Open juniors in 2004. He reached his first Grand Slam final at the same venue back in 2008, and also became World Number 2 in 2009. Before winning his first major at the 2012 US Open, Murray had played and lost four finals, and while he added a Wimbledon title 10 months later, his next Grand Slam victory came only three years later, at the 2016 Wimbledon.
Numbers and odds have never been in Andy Murray's favour.
In June, nobody in their right minds would have predicted Murray would be the top-ranked player in the world by the end of the year. He had lost yet another Grand Slam final, the second straight time, to Novak Djokovic, who had just completed a Career Slam with the French Open triumph. There was a seemingly super massive blackhole-sized chasm of 8,000 points between the two. Murray was likely to perennially be the bridesmaid, at No 2.
But in the four months since, tennis has demonstrated the wonderful unpredictability of sport. The seemingly insurmountable peak was mounted, even as the seemingly invincible monolith called Djokovic floundered. And in a short span of four months, Murray climbed to the top of the tennis world, only the fourth man to do so in the last decade.
The 29-year-old Murray probably had it the hardest of the four No 1s of this generation. And this is what makes his rise to the top even more remarkable. Sample this: Murray is the oldest first-time World No 1 since 30-year-old John Newcombe in June 1974.
It took him almost six years to bridge the gap from No 2 to No 1.
Yet, it is completely plausible why Murray took such a long and arduous road to the top. Of course, a large part of it is due to the other three men in that club. Murray has been somewhat unfortunate to be part of the same club as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — three GOAT (greatest of all time) contenders from one generation.
As John Isner said after losing to Murray in the recently concluded Paris Masters, "He's made a lot of finals as well. Put him in any other era, he probably would have more Grand Slams, but he's at the top of the game right now and he's going to give himself plenty more opportunity to win these big tournaments."
Murray himself admitted that being part of this "golden generation" made the long journey harder, yet sweeter. "I think that's the most satisfying thing, really. It's been such a difficult thing to do during my career because of how good the guys around me have been, the guys ahead of me. Obviously they are three of the best players who have ever played the game. And had some of the years that they have had in that period as well have been ridiculous, really, like three Slams and double Slams and many Masters Series as well," Murray had said after his ascent to the top was confirmed.
But the fact remains that Andy Murray's career path has been incongruent with his titles, especially at the all-important Grand Slams. And this is chief among the several reasons why his climb has been as incredible as it has been unlikely.
Murray has 43 career titles, but only three Grand Slams — the same as Stan Wawrinka, who has played in all of three finals. Murray, on the other hand, has been a runner-up eight times, with five of those at Australia alone! In fact, his infamy for choking in big moments and how he overcame that to reach the top is a story in itself.
But 14 of his 43 career titles are Masters, a number far greater than Wawrinka's sole one. And while Murray is way behind his contemporaries here – Federer has 88 titles (24 Masters), Nadal has 69 (28 Masters) and Djokovic 66 (a record 30 Masters) – the 14 titles have come across both surfaces. In fact, his steady improvement on clay at the Masters level is a good representation of Murray's constant toil.
But then there is his head-to-head record with the other three: Djokovic, who is one week younger than Murray, leads 24-10; Nadal leads Murray 17-7; and Federer's up 14-11. This tells another story of the effort he has had to put in to match their achievements. And he managed to make a match out of that.
While it is no secret that Andy Murray is not the most talented of the so-called Big Four, he can certainly stake a claim to be the most tenacious. While the Scot has been inconsistently consistent, he has also been superlative in patches. Like in 2012, when he reached the final at Wimbledon, won the Olympic gold and his first Grand Slam at Flushing Meadows within a span of weeks. Or, like in the latter half of 2016, where he has fired his way to a career best of 72 wins.
With a struggling Djokovic, waning Nadal and aging Federer, this could be Murray's time to shake off the bridesmaid (or choker, if you want to be blunt) tag and cement his status in tennis' pantheons of greats.
He may not be able to compare with some of his contemporaries when it comes to sheer numbers, but for now, the only number that will matter is the World No 1 position — a definitive, tangible proof of what he has achieved, irrespective of his illustrious competition.
All Murray has to do is fight to hold that position a little while longer — he has moved 405 points above Djokovic in the latest rankings, but the Serb could regain his place if he wins his fifth straight ATP Finals crown — and he could end the year as No 1 and enter next season and the Australian Open as favourite. If he can win the fight, like all the others in his playing career, he had a good chance of capping his incredible season on a high.
The title at Melbourne, which has been his nemesis five times, could finally be his, as could the top spot. Djokovic will have to defend 4,340 points in the first half of the season, compared to just 1,290 for the new World No 1. Andy Murray has broken the monopoly at the top of tennis and now the onus lies with him to extend his reign.