There remains no doubt that Novak Djokovic is the best player in the world, whatever the euphoria that greeted Murray’s straight-sets win over the Canadian Milos Raonic on Centre Court on Sunday afternoon. But he was not the best . He was at home – maybe even watching the man who is exactly a week older than him win the title again.
However, if this is still indisputably the Djokovic era, nor should there be much argument that the Serb’s biggest threat is Murray. The world No2 is playing the best tennis of his life – better, even, than when he beat Djokovic to win the US Open in 2012, the year he defeated Roger Federer to lift Olympic gold on this court, and then when he returned a year later to break that 77-year Fred Perry drought with another stirring but anxious victory over Djokovic.
Then he was skittish and uncertain, and invited hope. Now he is mature and confident and brings expectation.
Murray has Ivan Lendl by his side again, even if the coach who helped him to his gold medal and first two slam titles is coy about the length of his commitment. Murray will hope and pray it will be for the rest of his career.
However long they stay reunited, they will be a formidable double act. It was noticeable as soon as they got back together at Queen’s three Tuesdays ago that theirs was the best partnership Murray could possibly have. He had success with Amélie Mauresmo, rising to No2 in the world, but no majors to show for it. When Lendl left him in March, 2014, he was devastated. When Mauresmo walked two months ago, he was disappointed.
What will encourage Murray to believe he can build on this success is not only the mysterious collapse here in the third round of Djokovic, but the absence of the injured Rafael Nadal and the undeniable decline of Federer. Age and the intensity of the modern game has finally eaten into the aura they constructed over a decade.
There was a palpable sense during the past fortnight that the game is changing, that the Nadal-Federer reign is long gone now. It is not all gloom; there are young players beginning to make inroads as the older ones fade, and Murray and Djokovic are still engaged in one of sport’s most enduring rivalries.
The priorities of the leading players in the drama have shifted, perhaps, in keeping with their altered circumstances, although Djokovic was non-committal even before Wimbledon about playing for Serbia against Great Britain in the quarter-finals of the Davis Cup in Belgrade this week.
Losing to Sam Querrey in the first week of this tournament gave him the space and time to change his mind, but he has chosen not to play. Instead, he will concentrate on the Olympics, which begin on 5 August. So will Murray – after the Davis Cup.
Djokovic sounded dispirited and sapped of enthusiasm on his departure. He no doubt will come back strongly – if the shoulder injury, to which he alluded but would not discuss in detail, heals properly.
Federer, too, is now limping – metaphorically and on legs that have begun to betray him. The image that might linger longest from these championships was that of the Swiss, 35 next month, on his hands and knees trying to get up from a rare tumble as Raonic looked on from the other side of the net, concerned but also ready to deliver the final winning blows.
No reliable observer here could remember Federer ever falling to earth like that. It was more than symbolic; it left the great man injured and embarrassed. The final set passed him by in a painful blur, his left knee and ankle throbbing, his right thigh tightening up, in stark contrast to his energised fifth set to beat Marin Cilic in the quarter-finals two days earlier.
Nadal, who missed London 2012 through injury, said in his hometown of Manacor on Friday, “It has not entered my head not to be in Rio.” But his woes are every bit as concerning. He is 30 and nursing torn tendons in his famous left wrist, the one with which he’s whipped thousands of viciously top-spun forehands past a thousand bewildered opponents. Take that weapon away from the Spaniard, and he is vulnerable.
Those are the casualties. There have been winners here, too, though – not good enough to reach the final weekend but promising enough to encourage the view that they might be ready make a bigger impact within a year or so. Raonic has proved he is among their number.
Jiri Vesely came close to beating his Czech compatriot Tomas Berdych in the fourth round, and looks to have a game to test the elite. So too does Dominic Thiem, although the Austrian could not get past Vesely in the second round in one of the matches of the tournament.
The mercurial Nick Kyrgios, the languid Russian-German Alexander Zverev and the combative Borna Coric are others who will disturb the furniture from time to time.
And standing above all of them right now, because he has answered all questions and outlasted all challengers, is Murray. Once Djokovic left here, his near contemporary was an obvious favourite to win the title. Had they met in the final, it is not outrageous to suggest he might still have done so.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010