Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
NEW YORK — The ‘Big Three’ in men’s tennis is now officially a ‘Big Four’ and, boy, did this Golden Age just become a whole lot more compelling.
As if things weren’t interesting enough with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic winning 29 of 30 Grand Slam events entering this U.S. Open, now here comes Andy Murray crashing his way into the party by virtue of a scintillating 7-6 (10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2 victory over Djokovic in Monday’s epic final.
Murray not only won the first major of his career after an 0-4 start in finals, he also exorcised a 76-year-old British curse dating to Fred Perry’s win in the 1936 U.S. Championships.
“I’m sure he’s smiling from up there that someone has finally managed to do it from Britain,” Murray said of Perry.
But as much as Murray’s victory quells questions about the past, it also opens up intriguing possibilities for the future.
Murray became the first man other than Federer, Nadal or Djokovic to win a major since Juan Martin Del Potro beat Nadal and Federer back-to-back in the 2009 U.S. Open. Before that, Marat Safin at the 2005 Australian was the last man not named Federer, Nadal or Djokovic to win a Slam.
Djokovic called Murray’s losses in his previous four Slam finals –including the 2008 U.S. Open to Federer — “a necessary experience for him to understand what he needs to do be in the position that he is today.”
Murray said he felt the pressure to win a big one and wondered at times if he ever would.
“I’m very happy to be part of this era in tennis,” Murray said, his U.S. Open trophy sitting next to him in a jam-packed media room.
“I think everyone probably in here would agree it’s one of the best ever. I think playing against them has made me improve so much. You know, I always said that maybe if I played another era maybe I would have won more, but I wouldn’t have been as good a tennis player.
“I think that’s how you should be judged at the end of your career, not just on how much you’re winning but on the people you’re competing against and how good a player you actually were.
“Those guys are some of the best of all time.”
Yes, they are.
Federer, 31, is the all-time Grand Slam leader with 17 majors. And he’s on record saying he plans to play for a few more years, despite his quarterfinal loss here to Tomas Berdych.
The 26-year-old Nadal, who was forced to pull out of the Open with tendonitis in his knee, has 10 majors and seemed to be on an inevitable charge toward Federer’s record before injuries — and Djokovic — slowed him down.
And Djokovic, 25, owns five majors.
Now Murray, 25, joins the club with one…two if you count his historic victory at the Olympics that gave him the confidence he needed to take that next step.
“He has won it in a very impressive way in finals,” Djokovic said of the Olympics in which Murray crushed Federer for the gold after losing the Wimbledon final to Federer on that same court several weeks before. “So it must have been a great confidence boost for him.”
Murray’s victory in his fifth major final runs parallel to the career of his new coach, Ivan Lendl.
Lendl went 0-4 in Grand Slam finals before coming back from two sets to love down to beat John McEnroe in the 1984 French Open final.
The stern Czech then went on to win seven more majors — eight total — before his career was through.
So, does Lendl see any historic parallels between student and teacher?
“He’s better than me,” Lendl said of Murray. “He won two in a row now [including the Olympics]. I didn’t win two in a row.”
Told that the Murray-Djokovic match tied the 1988 final between Lendl and Mats Wilander as the longest in U.S. Open history at 4 hours, 54 minutes, Lendl cracked, “Unfortunately, I lost mine.”
Still, Murray paid homage to Lendl, who barely cracked a smile in the player’s box as Murray celebrated his first title with tears of joy and relief.
“I think that was almost a smile,” he joked.
“He’s one of the great players to ever play. I think he made eight consecutive finals. It’s great to have him supporting me and helping me in the tough moments.”
With Murray’s historic win, for the first time since 2003, four different men won the four majors in this calendar year.
Djokovic won the Australian.
Rafa took the French.
Federer reasserted himself as No. 1 in the world by winning Wimbledon.
And now Murray has finished up a brilliant summer by winning the Olympics — and the U.S. Open.
So, does that make Murray, who will jump to No. 3 in the world behind Federer and Djokovic, the Player of the Year?
“You can’t just rely on only playing the Grand Slams,” Murray said. “You need to do well at the other events, as well. I haven’t done as well as I have needed to get to No. 1 in the world.
“I would say Novak or Roger would be the best players this year. But there is still a few months left.”
Yes, a few months for Federer, Djokovic or Murray to step up and seize control of the No. 1 ranking while Nadal recovers in time to hopefully be fully healthy in 2013.
And then what happens in 2013? What happens when all four guys are back hungry to win more majors beginning in Australia in January?
“I’m not sure what’s gonna happen next couple of years,” Djokovic said. “Obviously, nothing is predictable. You know, I’m trying to think about myself.
“It’s a privilege to be part of this era. It’s obvious that the four of us, you know, we get to the later stages of every single Grand Slam.
“Andy winning tonight makes it even more competitive and more interesting for people to watch it.”
More interesting than the dominance of the Federer/Nadal/Djokovic Era?
More interesting than what we’ve seen since 2005?
That should be something to watch.
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.