Andy Murray’s 2016 season started with a crushing loss in the Australian Open final to Novak Djokovic. While holding the runners-up trophy for a fifth time in seven years, Murray looked on forlornly as Djokovic as delivered his winner’s speech. He had fallen short yet again, at a familiar venue to a familiar opponent. After the defeat, most critics and fans were left wondering: "What more can Murray do?"
Ten months later, the 29-year-old is the last man standing. On Sunday night, Murray outwitted Djokovic 6-3, 6-4 in an hour and 42 minutes to lift his maiden ATP World Tour Finals trophy and end the year as the world number one.
Murray came into the final after toiling for three hours and 38 minutes against Milos Raonic, saving a match point to eventually defeat the Canadian in the semi-final. Djokovic, on the other hand, had breezed past Kei Nishikori in just over an hour on the previous day. The Scot had never before reached the final of the season-ending championships, while his adversary was the defending champion with five titles to his name. Murray was meeting his nemesis for the first time since June, with the Serbian comfortably leading their rivalry 24-10.
The odds were heavily stacked against Murray, and few people gave him a chance of emerging victorious. Yet, on Sunday evening, in front of a packed O2 Arena in London, Murray overcame fatigue and nerves to win his 24th consecutive match.
Murray had a shaky start, hitting two double faults in his opening service game. Meanwhile, Djokovic raced away with his first nine service points. But it was the Scot who went on to strike first, breaking in the eight game of the match. This break of serve meant that Murray has broken his opponent in every of the last 107 matches that he has played, with the streak extending all the way back to Cincinnati 2015. Murray's confidence surged as the set progressed and he did not concede the advantage, sealing the opener 6-3 in 46 minutes.
Murray controlled play from the baseline, hitting sublime forehands all over the court. In the second set, he played with a new-found conviction and dominated rallies. In his previous encounters against Djokovic, Murray has often shrunk into a defensive shell and has hit conservative shots. But not this time. He constantly stepped up, effortlessly turning defence into offence, forcing Djokovic to make the errors. And Djokovic made his fair share of them. The defending champion played far from his best tennis, committing twice as many unforced errors as Murray (30 to 15). Significantly, 17 off those came on his backhand side, a chink that Murray exploited throughout the match.
In the second set, Murray built up a 4-1 lead but then stumbled on his own serve. The Scot was broken quite easily for the first time in the match, on the very first break point that he faced. Djokovic held to love in the next game to close the gap to 3-4. Serving at 3-5, the Serb saved two championship points and seemed to be staging up a mini resurgence. In the past, Murray would have probably crumbled in the next game. However, he dug deep on his own serve and conjured his third match point. His second serve was returned wide by Djokovic to hand him the victory.
He shook his head in disbelief and looked at his box and mum Judy in shock before finally wagging a single finger to denote what he had just achieved.
This was the first time since 2000 in Lisbon that the year-end number one ranking was decided by the outcome of the championship match of the season finale. Murray was coronated a worthy successor to the London crown as well as the pinnacle of the ATP rankings.
“The No 1 means a lot, obviously. It was something I genuinely never expected to do, it was something I was never close to do doing. But before I knew it, it just kind of happened,” Murray expressed on court right after the final ended.
Murray's disbelief at his own accomplishments is understandable. When Djokovic clinched his career slam at Roland Garros in June, Murray was trailing the Serb by over 8,000 points in the ATP rankings — the equivalent of winning four slams. Since then, the man from Dunblane has strung together a remarkable run, lifting eight titles in ten events. This inspired streak includes Wimbledon, an Olympic gold medal, two Masters 1000 trophies and the ATP Finals. As in the final, Murray has been aided by Djokovic's "slump" post the French Open, but he made the most of whatever has come his way.
All through the week in London, Murray dragged out wins from gruelling, titanic battles. Having spent over nine hours on court, he has berated himself through two marathon victories over Kei Nishikori in the round robin stage and Raonic in the semifinals. On the way to the title, he defeated the all the five players ranked just below him. Watching Murray is always a test of endurance; his laboured wins are often accompanied with swings in moods and momentum. Over the past few months though, he has found a way to grind out results and temper the tides to ultimately prevail. In many ways, the ATP Finals has been a reflection of his career – gutsy and hard-fought.
The first Brit to lift the trophy at the season finale, and the 17th different player to finish atop the ATP rankings, Murray, with this victory has marched into the pantheon of the sport's greatest and cemented his place in history.
Murray became a part of the ‘Big Four’ over ten years ago and has spent the last seven years at the number two spot. In an era where Djokovic had to push his physical abilities to the ultimate to step out of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s shadow, Murray’s achievements take even more significance. For years, he was reluctantly reduced to always being the bridesmaid. Now, he is the leading man on top.