The Four Kings. That is what they called Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran, those iron-willed gladiators of boxing’s last golden age.
Between them they fought in 72 proper world title contests, nine mano a mano, stretching across the 1970s to the 90s from glam to grunge. Even 25 years later just eight words – No Mas, The Showdown, The Fight, The War – provoke multiple flashbacks.
Andy Murray’s straight-sets victory against Milos Raonic at Wimbledon confirms him as the fourth king of the most glittering age in men’s tennis. Sure Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic rank higher in the pantheon. No one would dispute that. But Murray, too, has been exceptional for the best part of a decade, despite often coming off worse when rutting against these three all-time greats. He deserves more gloriously teary days like the one on Centre Court on Sunday. Given the way he is playing better than ever at 29, he should get them, too.
How many grand slam titles might he have racked up in a different era? We cannot be sure. But the bidding surely starts at four or five and rising.
Murray has now played 11 grand slam finals, the same number as John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander and one ahead of Boris Becker. McEnroe and Wilander won seven major championships, Becker and Edberg six. The difference is those legends did not have to meet peak Federer or peak Djokovic – as Murray did in his first 10 finals. It meant that even when he was staring down Milos Raonic and his 140mph howitzers, he was slipping down in grade.
One stat shouts louder than most about Murray’s dominance against everyone outside the big three: against them his win-loss record in grand slam semi-finals and finals is won four, lost 17 – but it is 10-0 against everyone else. He is, by a long way, the very best of the rest.
When I spoke to the Swedish Davis Cup captain, Thomas Enqvist, about how Murray might have fared in the 90s, when Enqvist was a regular top-10 player up against Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier, he initially stressed the differences with then and now – balls, rackets, strings and, in Wimbledon’s case, the court. Enqvist would back Sampras against anyone if the grass was still like grease and the balls only reluctantly rose above the waist. Then came a big but. The top players are better and fitter than when I played, he added. And Murray is truly exceptional, a future hall-of-famer for sure.
Is it possible to compare across the eras? Dan Weston, a tennis analyst and professional gambler, suggests one way: looking at how successful a player has been at holding and breaking serve in each year he has played. For instance in 1991, when Becker won the Australian Open – his penultimate grand slam title – and was ranked No1 for 12 weeks, he held 84% of his service games and broke 27% of his opponent’s serves, a combined success total of 111%.
Murray, though, has bettered that figure in each year since 2009 – always winning 81-86% of his service games and breaking 31-36% of his opponent’s. According to Weston, Murray’s best rank over a season, 118%, is the same figure as Sampras and Edberg at their peak.
There are other factors. Too often in the past Murray has lost his way following splenetic rants at himself and his entourage, pocket explosions that only self-destructed his chances. With Ivan Lendl in his corner Mount Murray still erupts but now the fallout is less harmful. It helps that Lendl, who also shed tears on Sunday, would probably respond to a volley of abuse by purchasing a plane ticket back to Florida.
The Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad recently made another, less appreciated, point about Lendl’s influence – he makes Murray more aggressive. Before their first spell together he hit his forehand at an average of 119kmh. With Lendl it rose to 127kmh. But when they parted ways in 2014 it retreated back to 121kmh.
It is not just Murray’s power that appears to be back; his accuracy is more laser-like too. Against Nick Kyrgios in the fourth round he thrashed 36 winners off his racket to six unforced errors. In the semi-final against Tomas Berdych there were only nine unforced errors in 161 points. Thirty-nine winners to 12 unforced errors against Raonic in the final was not too shabby, either.
There is a final point worth noting: Murray’s nerve. The ATP Tour recently compared players who perform well in “clutch moments” – those times when the adrenaline is chugging a little more freely – by looking at how they performed while serving for the set. Murray usually holds his serve 84% of the time. Yet when serving for the set that figure goes up to 91%. That is, under pressure, he becomes more nerveless. Only Raonic and Federer surpass him in this respect.
There was some illustration of that quality in the first set against Raonic, as he bashed out four points in a row after going 0-15 down at 5-4; and again in sets two and three when he stared down a player with one of the best tie-break records this year to beat him comfortably in both. It was a performance fit for a king – modern tennis’s fourth king.
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