How Andy Murray chased down Novak Djokovic to end 2016 on top of the world

Great Britain's Andy Murray celebrates winning the final

When Gay Talese came to write the story of Floyd Patterson, he decided to call it The Loser.

Which was an odd choice, since Patterson won a gold medal at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 and the heavyweight championship of the world, twice. But then a champion’s legacy can be defined by the few contests he lost as well as the many he won. And Patterson was beaten twice by Sonny Liston, in the defining fights of his life, and twice more by Muhammad Ali. He was a great boxer who had the bad luck to live in an era when others were greater still. Talese’s profile was a study in defeat, of what happens to a champion when he runs into an opponent just that much better.

“It’s easy to do anything in victory,” Patterson once said, “it’s in defeat that a man reveals himself.” If Andy Murray’s career had ended in the summer of 2013, he would still have gone down as one of the greatest of all British sportsmen. Like Patterson, he was an Olympic champion, and he was the first British man to win Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936. But having scaled those heights, Murray travelled on in search of peaks beyond. And he found himself, like everyone else, chasing after Novak Djokovic. Murray beat Djokovic in the final when he won Wimbledon in 2013, then lost 12 of their next 13 matches.

The one victory was at the Canadian Open in 2015, in the middle of a good year for Murray. He won his first clay court titles, in Munich and Madrid, led Great Britain to victory in the Davis Cup, and finished the year as the world No2. Trouble was, it was an even better one for Djokovic, who won the Australian Open, Wimbledon, the US Open, six Masters events, and lost only five matches all year. The question for Murray at the start of 2016 was what he could do to narrow the gap between himself and the player many reckoned to be one of the best of all time. And at first, he did not seem to have a ready answer.

In January Djokovic beat Murray in straight sets in the final of the Australian Open, a match Murray described as “the worst I’ve ever played”. It seemed, Kevin Mitchell wrote, “that Djokovic does everything Murray does only better.” Murray had a lot on his mind. It had been a difficult fortnight. His father-in-law, Nigel Sears, had collapsed while he was watching a match on Rod Laver Arena. Murray spent a night beside him in hospital, and would have withdrawn if Sears had not recovered as well as he did. All the while his wife, Kim, was back home, pregnant with their first child, who was born in early February.

It got worse. Murray lost to Federico Delbonis in Indian Wells, and Grigor Dimitrov in the Miami Open, when he smashed his racket on court. There was talk he had fallen out with his coach, Amélie Mauresmo. He denied it but they split after Murray lost to Djokovic again in the final of the Madrid Open. The fallout lingered until the French Open, when Mauresmo spoke about Murray’s grumpy manner on court, and left everyone trying to make sense of what had gone on between them. In the meantime, Jamie Delgado took over as his coach. And at the Rome Masters, he helped Murray get some revenge. He beat Djokovic, 6-3, 6-3, in an hour and 35 minutes.

Djokovic had played a three-hour semi-final the night before, and was furious about the state of the court. But still, here was some hope. Swiftly extinguished at the French Open, when Djokovic beat him again, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4. Murray had recently said “if the top players win the first set they’re winning 95% of the time”, but this was one of the rare exceptions. He seemed feverish all through the tournament, was pushed to five sets by Radek Stepanek in the first round, then again by the world No164 Mathias Bourgue in the second. It was around this time he was memorably described as “a walking existential crisis” by Louisa Thomas in the New Yorker.

Murray asked Ivan Lendl if he was interested in working together again. Soon Lendl, inscrutable as rock, implacable as the tide, was back in Murray’s box. He won his next 22 matches, a run that saw him sweep to a fifth victory at Queen’s, win his third grand slam and his second Olympic title. At Wimbledon, everything changed on the middle Saturday, when Djokovic lost to Sam Querrey. A different kind of pressure came down on Murray. For the first time in his life, he started the second week of a grand slam as the favourite to win the title. He was ready for it. He needed five sets to beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga but only three apiece for Tomas Berdych and Milos Raonic.

In Rio, Murray carried the Great Britain flag at the opening ceremony, and spoke about how much he loved to play for his country. “It’s brought the best out of me throughout my career,” he said. And it did again. Juan Martín Del Potro had seen off Djokovic in the first round. Then Murray beat Del Potro in the final, 7-5, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5 over four hours of absorbing play in front of 10,000 raucous fans. He hardly had a chance to celebrate but sped from the stadium to the airport, muttering apologies that he had to catch a flight to Cincinnati. There he lost to Marin Cilic in the final, his first defeat since the French Open final. Then in New York the following week he was beaten in five sets by Kei Nishikori, his 27th match in 57 days.

Del Potro got his own back in the Davis Cup, when Great Britain were knocked out in the semi-finals. Murray took a short break, and then set off again, his mind fixed on overhauling Djokovic in the world rankings. He was in second place but almost 5,000 points behind, which meant he was closer to sixth-placed Raonic. Most felt he would not be able to catch up till next year. But from October through to December, Murray was unbeatable. He won the China Open, the Shanghai Masters, the Vienna Open, and the Paris Masters, where he overtook Djokovic and became the world’s top-ranked tennis player.

Finally, at the ATP World Tour Finals, Murray beat Cilic, Nishikori, Wawrinka, Raonic in short order and, at last, Djokovic himself, 6-3, 6-4. It was his eighth title of the year, and his fifth in a row. Twelve months earlier, Murray had been asked what he could possibly do to beat Djokovic. Not much, but “maybe he’ll have a drop off,” Murray said. And Djokovic did. Murray spotted the opening and pursued it mercilessly, with the best tennis of his career.

He is a great fight fan himself, and would appreciate the way Patterson put it all those years ago: “They said I was the fighter who got knocked down the most. But I also got up the most.” Andy Murray kept coming, and in 2016, he was rewarded for it.

Powered by article was written by Andy Bull, for The Guardian on Friday 16th December 2016 13.15 Europe/London

Andy Murray’s brilliant year: how he rose to world No1 © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010