Andy Murray’s 14-year journey reaches moment of destiny at French Open

Tennis - French Open Mens Singles Semifinal match - Roland Garros - Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland vs Andy Murray of Britain

It all started when a skinny 15-year-old boy from a small town in Scotland decided he was going to take his racket and spend a couple of years learning how to play the game on the clay of an academy in Barcelona, a surface and an environment as foreign to him as the language.

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On Sunday, Andy Murray, not long turned 29, gets to cash in the dividend of his inspired investment when he steps on to the biggest clay stage in the game, Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros, the fabled setting for the final of the French Open against the best player in the world, Novak Djokovic.

Fairytales do not just happen in real life. People make them happen and that is the core reason Murray has made the 14-year journey from Barcelona to Paris, a sporting odyssey with way more high points than low ones.

He treasures all of those experiences but he has a sense of destiny as well, as if they were supposed to happen and he just gave them a wee nudge. Some came as more of a surprise than others, though.

“Us winning the Davis Cup [in Ghent last November] came as more of a shock, to be honest,” he said. “I didn’t necessarily expect to be in this position a couple of years ago. But from last year, the belief that it was possible was there, I was pretty close last year. Whereas in the Davis Cup, even with Tim [Henman] and Greg [Rusedski] in the team, who were two top 10 players, we never won a World Group match. So the Davis Cup in my opinion was more of a shock.

“But there’s not many players that have come out of the UK and played well on the clay. The decision I made to go to Spain when I was 15 to train for a couple of years – I’m not saying that’s necessarily the reason that I’m here today – but if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have got that base that I gained when I was over there. That has made a big difference. It was a big decision in my career to do that.”

He is making history with a man who was born a week later than he was, in an environment every bit as umpromising as was Dunblane from which to launch a tennis career: the streets of Belgrade, which would hear the sound of bombs and shrapnel in Djokovic’s formative years.

There is more mutual respect than closeness between them, but little lasting animus, despite several moments of professional conflict in some of their bigger encounters.

As Murray says: “I beat him in the Wimbledon final and the final of the US Open and the Olympics [2012 semi-final]. I’ve lost some tough matches against him, in Australia especially. But elsewhere it’s been OK.

“When you look back at the end of your career, it’s nice to have had someone you have shared a lot of those same moments with. Not all of them have gone my way obviously.

“But I remember most of my matches against Novak, more than I do against others, because they have been most of the biggest matches for me. Australian Open finals, Wimbledon final, Olympics, US Opens, here last year in the semis. We’ve played a lot of big matches and it will be the same again on Sunday.”

There is no doubt who is the favourite here. Djokovic is dominating his era like no other player has in the history of the game. Murray is a distant No2 in the rankings.

Yet, on six of the eight occasions when the top two players in the world have contested this title, the second-ranked player has won. It is a meaningless statistic apart from the fact it illustrates that anything is possible in a big match, because everything is reduced to the collection of moments that make up the event on one day.

All that has gone before can be put aside for a while – such as Stan Wawrinka’s heroic victory over Djokovic a year ago. Ignoring a couple of early-career wins, the Swiss had one significant victory over the world No1 going into that match: in the quarter-finals on his way to beating Rafael Nadal in the final of the 2014 Australian Open. That was Wawrinka’s first moment and it inspired the second and greater effort here in 2015.

So Murray has to seize his moment now. As John McEnroe said during the week, this is his best shot ever. The player himself seems to be on that wavelength. He knows he has to give himself the best possible chance of beating the best player in the world and he knows how to do that, because he has done it twice before in slams, in New York in 2012 and at Wimbledon in 2013. Murray will draw on those memories.

“Everyone handles pressure differently. The way that game [his Wimbledon win] turned out is what made it so nerve-racking. I actually felt fine at the beginning of the game but then, when you lose a few match points, you start to think about it. It’s really my job on Sunday to make it as difficult as possible for him so that hopefully he has a few doubts, which all athletes get, at different stages.”

Murray knows how to do that. He did it superbly to Wawrinka in the semi-final on Friday, as the defending champion was reduced to desperate shots at the line just to stay in the contest. Against Djokovic in last year’s final, those big shots went in. Not so many landed on Friday and Murray ground his opponent into the dirt.

“I did a good job of that against Stan. When I have played my best tennis, it has been to try to make every point really tough and long, and extend the rallies as much as I can, and not give anything for free. Because the best players, when you do get free games, it’s nice. The more you can make any of the top players work, the better, and I will try to do that at the beginning of the match.”

Murray has now reached 10 grand slam finals. All have them have been against one of two players: Roger Federer or Djokovic, who historically rank at the very top of the game.

That is the size of Murray’s challenge on Sunday. If he meets it head on, if he somehow manages to get inside the head of his opponent, he will become the first British man to win the French Open since Fred Perry in 1935. Is it his destiny? He won’t leave us wondering.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Kevin Mitchell at Roland Garros, for The Observer on Saturday 4th June 2016 23.03 Europe/London

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