Men: Andy Murray
Although some ATP pros jumped at least 10, 20, or 50 places in the computer rankings, Andy Murray improved his standing by just one digit. And there’s an excellent chance that he wouldn’t even have accomplished that, were it not for the bad luck that befell Rafael Nadal. Ranked No. 2 at the start of Wimbledon (ahead of No. 3 Roger Federer and No. 4 Murray), the king of clay had to pull the plug on his season after the tournament because of knee problems.
Despite a generally excellent record, Murray had consistently been shut out when his peers in the Top 3 divvied up the Grand Slam titles. By the start of this year, failures at the peak moments—Murray was a three-time Grand Slam runner-up at the start of 2012—had morphed into the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room during any discussion of the Scot’s career.
You could almost sense that 2012 would be a watershed year for Murray, one way or the other. He made a bold move in January by hiring Ivan Lendl as his coach. Very few players of Lendl’s caliber had ever coached with any degree of commitment; the role is just too subordinate for the alpha dogs of tennis. But the two seemed meant for each other, as like Murray, Lendl had experienced only frustration in his first Grand Slam finals. And here he was, agreeing to coach the 24-year-old who was threatening to become the first player since himself to play four Grand Slam finals without winning one.
Murray played well in Australia, where he’d been runner-up for two straight years, but lost in the semifinals to Novak Djokovic. In Paris, on the clay surface that he likes least, he bowed in the quarterfinals to David Ferrer. The decision to hire Lendl seemed almost desperate when Murray accomplished the feat he wished to avoid: He lost the Wimbledon final to Federer, thereby joining his coach as a four-time Grand Slam runner-up—but never a winner.
No matter how highly his rivals praised Murray, each passing loss made a breakthrough seem less likely.
It’s tough enough to win a Grand Slam title, never mind doing it while carrying all that baggage into a final. Murray was in such a dilemma, but to his good fortune this happened to be an Olympic year. Just weeks after his failure at Wimbledon, Murray eliminated Djokovic and then Federer on the very same Centre Court where they had played the final. Murray won the cherished gold medal (he would also take silver in the mixed doubles with Laura Robson) and his entire nation—or kingdom—roared.
That Olympic result didn’t necessarily look like the game-changer it was as the last Grand Slam of the year got underway in New York. At the U.S. Open, Murray and Lendl were down to their last card, and in the end, both men drew to an inside straight. As Lendl himself had done, Murray broke the hex in his fifth Grand Slam final.
Lendl is known for having an excellent tennis mind that he keeps mostly under wraps. He certainly shaped Murray’s strategic and tactical vision of the game to make it more purposeful—a welcome improvement, given that one of Murray’s weaknesses was a tendency to play it by ear. Murray’s forehand looked especially sharp as the year went on.
But given the extent to which the hump Murray had to get over was a mental one, Lendl’s presence and the force of his personality were an even larger ingredient in his charge’s success. Let me go all armchair psychologist on you here: Lendl, the renowned hard-ass, makes a formidable authority figure—even a father figure. Perhaps Murray, whose parents separated when he was nine and later divorced, really needed a strong male figure in his life—something Lendl was able to provide because, unlike Murray’s previous coaches, he was a superior player and not at all dependent on Murray for his living.
The final irony in this saga is that Lendl—cold, rational, pitiless Ivan—ended up helping to write what is essentially a warm and fuzzy tale of overcoming doubt and repeated frustration. The world remains full of surprises.
Honorable Mention: David Ferrer
His No. 5 ranking is the same as it was at the end of last year, and it’s not even his career-high position (he hit No. 4 back February 2008). But in this his career year, Ferrer finally won his first Masters title and won an ATP tour-best seven tournaments. That is, he “improved” enormously as a big-match player.
Watching Rafa Nadal churn his way through the claycourt season over the past few weeks, it seems nothing much has changed since his French Open triumph a year ago despite a lengthy injury layoff.
Scenes from Down Under
Check out the best images from the 2013 Australian Open.
The best of Wimbledon
The best images from the Grand Slam tournament at the All-England Club.
French Open 2012: Top 10 Shots
June 10, 2012: John McEnroe, Ted Robinson, and Mary Carillo look back at the Top Ten best moments from the 2012 French Open.