AFTER all the talk about Andy Murray, and whether he could win his first tennis Grand Slam title, it was fascinating that the Australian Open men’s singles final turned out to be a repeat of Wimbledon 2008 in the best possible way. This is going to be a wonderful year for men’s tennis.
Nadal v Federer Take II was every bit as gripping as the first instalment in SW19 last July; a match to take its place alongside the first Borg-McEnroe Wimbledon final. And by the sound of Federer’s runners-up speech, it was every bit as exhausting too.
(If you missed it, Federer was almost too knackered to speak, blurting out: “Ive felt better. Maybe I’ll try later. God, it’s killing me.”)
OK, so Murray – despite being the pre-tournament favourite over here – couldn’t provide the British win that might have upped the hype a notch in anticipation of Wimbledon 2009. But the fact that he is disappointed only to have reached the quarter-finals is surely a sign that he is capable of greatness.
Murray has beaten Federer in their last four meetings. He beat Nadal in the Abu Dhabi exhibition final at the start of last month. If all three players are fit and on top form this summer, Wimbledon is going to be wonderful.
It can’t be emphasised enough how rare a power struggle like this is in the recent history men’s tennis. Before Nadal won last year’s Wimbledon final so thrillingly, Federer had been champion for the previous six years.
Go back beyond Lleyton Hewitt’s 2002 triumph and Goran Ivanisevic’s heart-stopping victory the year before (when Tiger Tim really should have done it), and you get Pete Sampras winning seven years out of eight (and lending his surname to Father Dougal Maguire’s pet rabbit in the process).
That’s a period of more than 15 years when anyone able to tell one end of a tennis racquet from the other could have predicted the men’s singles champion.
But this year? You know what, Murray’s got a decent chance. I wouldn’t make him the favourite, because if he gets anywhere near the final, he will face levels of hype unseen in British tennis. When Henman was a regular in the last four, people hoped rather than expected. The shouts of “Come on, Tim” always seemed, to my ears, to have a faint tinge of desperation about them. With Murray, British tennis fans expect a Grand Slam sooner or later.
But he has the ability to match Nadal and Federer. It means, for the first time in a generation, there is no single clear favourite for this year’s Wimbledon title.
That’s why I hope Murray, Federer and Nadal all stay fit and healthy through to the summer. Because if they do, we may just get one or two more matches like the one that brought the Australian Open to such a thrilling climax.