It was 18 months ago that Novak Djokovic launched his new career as a serial Grand Slam winner and a world No.1. The unstoppable Serb had done little to change his game in his rise to the top but it was his confidence that made the difference. Quite simply, the man never believed that any match was beyond him or any cause was lost.
He attributed the sudden transformation from talented player to unbeatable champion to two key moments in his career: losing to Rafael Nadal in the US Open final in 2010 and then going on to lead Serbia to victory in the Davis Cup final in Belgrade. The former proved to him that he still had what it took to get to major finals and the latter taught him that never again ought he to feel fear on a tennis court.
Now, as Andy Murray proudly stands in the check-in queue at Heathrow airport – he is flying to Canada for the Rogers Cup on Tuesday afternoon – he has two Olympic medals around his neck: gold in the singles after his stunning 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 thrashing of Roger Federer and silver from the mixed doubles (he and Laura Robson lost the final to Max Mirnyi and Victoria Azarenka 2-6, 6-3, 10-8).
Just four weeks after losing the Wimbledon final to Federer in four sets, his best performance to date in a grand slam final, he won the most important match of his life to win gold at his home Olympics. To lose one final in SW19 and then come back to win another could just be the Scot’s Djokovic-Davis Cup moment.
Federer put it perfectly: “He came, he won gold. I think this is how champions react.”
“I think come US Open time,” Murray said, “that this will have given me the confidence to go in there and believe in myself a bit more than I have in the past and give myself a shot at winning there.”
The way Murray dismantled Federer, shot by shot, was simply stunning.
The Swiss was well below his best after his marathon semi-final against Juan Martin Del Potro, but then again, he had the whole of Saturday to recover. Murray was running around like a whippet on wheels working his way through two rounds of the mixed doubles on the day before the biggest singles match of his career. No, Federer was emotionally drained from experience of reaching his first Olympic singles final; Murray thrived on the journey.
It is not as if playing on home turf in front of a partisan crowd of British flag-wavers makes a chap’s life easier. The final was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. Never again would he play in a home Olympics, never again would he contest a gold medal on Centre Court, never again would the famous old arena be filled with so many eager fans caught up in the Olympic spirit. This was pressure like no other.
But thanks to the advice and experience of his coach, Ivan Lendl, who has been on the other end of a phone whenever Murray needed a few pointers this week, the Scot has been cool, calm and collected all week and was positively clinical in the final. In the space of four weeks, he has grown up as a player and now seems ready to take on the world.
“Ivan told me after the Wimbledon final that he was really happy with the way I played the whole tournament,” Murray said. “He's never been around a British player during Wimbledon, so he maybe didn't quite know what it was like. He was saying, I'll never play in a match under that much pressure again in my life. So that's good news. I did feel much more relaxed going into today's match than I did going into the Wimbledon final.
“Having someone like Ivan around after that Wimbledon final was very important, as well, someone to talk to about the emotion, how it feels. He understands all of that. I spoke to him before today's match about the tactics, going over a little bit what happened at Wimbledon, used it in the right way instead of negatively, which in the past I've certainly done after a few of the grand slam finals.
I've actually used it in the right way to become a better player. I hope that that showed today.”
It was Britain’s first gold medal in men’s tennis since 1908 and the country’s first major tennis trophy since Fred Perry’s US Open win in 1936. And now there is the US Open to come in three weeks’ time. The Olympic flame will still burn brightly in Murray when he arrives in Flushing Meadows; Federer and Djokovic know to beware.