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The London Chronicles, Vol. 4: Great Britain Lives Up to Its Name

The Fifth Grand Slam?

Andy Murray and the undeniable oddness of Olympic tennis

Since Roger Federer packs a special outfit for trophy presentations, has branded his own monogram, and graciously acknowledges his own greatness, I was surprised to hear that he had turned down the invitation to carry the Swiss flag during the Opening Ceremony at the Olympics. He is not usually one to overlook an honor. Then I learned that Federer had been the flag-bearer in 2004 and 2008. “I just felt it was important to give someone else a chance, particularly in Switzerland,” Federer explained at a press conference. “We do believe other people should also have chances.”

So instead, Switzerland gave the chance to carry the flag to Stanislas Wawrinka. Wawrinka is best known as the Swiss tennis player who isn’t Roger Federer. Switzerland: always looking out for the little guy, I guess. The funny thing is that Wawrinka is as great an Olympian as Federer. They have the same number of gold medals (one), from their victory in doubles in Beijing. In three Olympics, Federer had never won a medal in the singles competition. This is never mentioned during debates over whether Federer is the greatest player of all time. Never!

Tennis has a strange relationship to the Olympics. The players sometimes talk about the Olympics like the event is a fifth slam. They jockey for position to qualify and delay retirement in order to compete. They suddenly remember that they’re from Siberia and not from Florida, or from Belarus and not from Monte Carlo. The top singles players deign to play doubles — even mixed doubles! At the same time, tennis doesn’t just have one tournament that’s bigger than the Olympics, it has four. Top tennis players are not like the skeet shooters, with all due respect to the skeet shooters. Winning gold would gild their careers, but not define them.

“I’m usually pretty naive about like people’s knowledge of me, my career, what I’ve achieved. I try to be pretty humble about it,” Maria Sharapova told reporters, “but the biggest mistake I’ve made in a long time was entering the cafeteria. I didn’t walk out eating any food. I barely got an orange juice. It was quite funny. Actually, I didn’t sign any autographs, it was just pictures. I felt like a little statue.”

OK, Sharapova is the only person who has ever accused Sharapova of being humble about her fame — but it’s true: She is one of the few Olympic athletes who was a superstar before she ever stepped into the Olympic Village cafeteria. You could say this about the NBA players in London. But at least basketball at the Olympics offers something different from the NBA: the chance to watch Chris Paul play with LeBron, for instance, or to watch Lithuania embarrass the U.S., if that’s more your thing. Tennis at the Olympics offers … Federer and Sharapova, just like the majors.

Sharapova wanted to win the Olympics because she wants to win everything, and because the Olympics are, generally speaking, something anyone would want to be a part of. The same was true for Federer. Federer clearly wanted to win the Olympics singles title this year. It was the only thing he didn’t have, and a champion wants what he doesn’t have. Plus, victory means gold, and Federer has always liked a little flash. But would it be Slam-special? Wimbledon-special? I could be wrong about this, but when Federer puts himself to sleep by counting his major titles, I doubt that he includes the gold medal he won in doubles in 2008. I doubt that he would count it, really, even if he had won it playing singles. This isn’t to say that he didn’t really want it — the effort and emotion he showed during the 19-17 third set against Juan Martin del Potro during the semis was evidence of that — but it wouldn’t have been the same as Wimbledon.

Federer played Murray at the All England Club in the gold-medal match four weeks to the day after he beat the Scot to win his 17th major. Federer walked around the court with his usual placid smile and unperturbed hair. Murray clenched his cheeks in his usual grimace. Still, the match was not exactly déjà vu. For starters, the green boards were turned Crayola-purple. The baseline was even more of a dirt patch than it had been in the beginning of July. Instead of traditional whites, Federer wore Swiss red and Murray wore Stella McCartney blues. Ivan Lendl was not looking on, killing the joy. The roof was open, the sun was (sometimes) out. The fans were face-painted. And Andy Murray was hitting his forehand. He was stepping into the mid-court and drilling it.

I have to admit that this is the first I’d seen of Andy Murray during the Olympics. That’s the thing about tennis and the Olympics: I watch tennis all year. I’ve watched Andy Murray play in Miami, in Melbourne, in Rome. I do not watch archery all year. This week, I woke up early to see archery, volleyball, the prelims of the 100-meter butterfly. The point is, maybe Murray played well all week. I don’t know.

When Andy Murray walks onto the court, he always looks so alone. More alone in a lonely sport than any of the other top guys, I think. Federer has his confidence to keep him company, and of course his lovely wife Mirka is always a patient presence in his box. Nadal glances up at Uncle Toni when he’s in trouble. The members of Djokovic’s contingent look like they would kill to protect Djokovic (some of them look like they already have). Wherever Djokovic plays, anyway, Serbia never seems far away. Andy Murray has his own team in his box, of course, and his mother, and he has Britain. But his mother has been known to tweet about the sexiness of his opponents, and British support is not always supportive.

Murray has been running up against the top three for so long, with so little success at the slams, that I started to think of him as Wile E. Coyote, and not just for the physical resemblance. Murray had all the weapons he could want, but when he constructed points, he had a tendency to fall somehow into his own perfect traps.

Can you imagine the strangeness of the moment? All England Club, Roger Federer, Henman Hill, the grass, the Union Jack — only one month after the most painful defeat of his life. On Sunday, when Murray hit a bad shot he would wince and slam his forehand with the heel of his hand. And yet he looked as relaxed as I’ve ever seen him. He looked like he cared, but that fact didn’t crush him.

In the end, he took his chances, and Federer didn’t. Murray didn’t just win; he dominated Federer, 6-2, 6-1, 6-4. Federer wasn’t playing his best. He was coming off a semifinal match against del Potro that lasted more than four hours, and he was sluggish and imprecise, botching volleys and shanking forehands. Murray played very well, but not transcendently. His serving was at times pathetic. The rest of his game was much better. You could say a lot about his play — his quick and soft hands, his scissor-kicking backhand, his sharp passes when Federer approached the net. You could talk about the way he defended his second serve and attacked Federer’s, or his forehand, which was, for once, for real. For stretches he played like Serena Williams! None of that seemed to matter too much. What mattered was that the crowd was just happy to watch him play.

The British can be such bullies. It wasn’t Andy Murray’s fault that the U.K. economy hasn’t been able to drag itself out of recession, but the scrutiny he faced during Wimbledon almost made it seem that way. No other country cares so much with so little reward, or carries its identity with so much pride and so much embarrassment. Then came the Olympics. Kate and Will sat in the cheap seats and did the wave. Rowers, cyclists, and runners have been winning gold medals. Right now, Jessica Ennis is a goddess in Britain.

The U.S. Open is only a few weeks away. The scrutiny will be focused on Murray again. Maybe winning a best-of-five match against Federer will change the course of his career. Maybe winning once at the All England Club will help him do it again. Who knows what the Olympics will ultimately mean to him?

Murray acknowledged his win by crumpling a little. Later there would be leaps along the baseline, hugs, a giant flag around his shoulders, a gold medal. It wasn’t The Championships. Even as he said that it was the most important win of his career, he suggested that it wasn’t the most important match of his career. “I spoke to Ivan Lendl after the Wimbledon final and he said to me, ‘You’ll never play under more pressure than you did in the Wimbledon final,’” Murray said after the gold-medal match.

So, this wasn’t The Championships. Not as much pressure as Murray has faced. Maybe he learned some things from his experience last month. Or maybe the situation was simply different. This wasn’t just a tennis tournament; it was the Olympics, and it was great. For a couple of hours today, Andy Murray was on the grass, ripping his forehand in front of his fans, not for the sake of the All England Club, the vestiges of empire, the expectations of a nation, or whatever. He didn’t even have to win for the sake of proving himself. But he won for the sake of something. Call it Team GB. Why not?

Filed Under: People, Roger Federer, Sports, Tennis

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Louisa Thomas is a Grantland staff writer and a Fellow at the New America Foundation.

Archive @ louisahthomas