Andy Murray and Milos Raonic both fully understood what was at stake in the final of the world’s most prestigious tournament today. Murray had tasted the champagne at the majors twice, collecting the U.S. Open title in 2012 and Wimbledon the following year. And yet, the 29-year-old had suffered no fewer than eight defeats in Grand Slam tournament finals across a distinguished career, bowing five times against Novak Djokovic (including two in a row this year at Melbourne and Paris), losing thrice to Roger Federer. The 29-year-old is a much better player than his record reflects, and that is why he was so determined to come through in this critical skirmish.
Raonic was appearing in his first Grand Slam final on the Centre Court, but the 25-year-old Canadian is tremendously ambitious, and he did not show up for this meeting ready to be a gallant loser accepting second place. He was here to go full force after victory. And yet, he was surely cognizant that the ” Big Four” of Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Murray had astoundingly taken 41 of the previous 45 major titles dating back to the middle of 2005. In that span, Nadal won 14 Grand Slam titles, Federer 13, Djokovic 12, and Murray 2. That left room for only Stan Wawrinka to capture a pair of majors, while Juan Martin Del Potro and Marin Cilic claimed one each.
Murray made certain that the ” Big Four” domination of the game’s greatest events remained undiminished. He gave a first rate performance to take apart Raonic 6-4,7-6 (3),7-6 (2) for this second Wimbledon title and third major. He was unswerving from the backcourt, giving almost nothing away, outmaneuvering Raonic in rally after rally, counter-attacking superbly, playing the big points with poise, purpose and remarkable self assurance. Murray made 12 unforced errors (17 less than Raonic) across three sets of nearly immaculate tennis. He was deliberately not trying to be flamboyant; his goal was to play masterful, percentage tennis, and he did just that. For his part, Raonic steadfastly looked for small openings and ways to work his way into the match.
That was impossible. The 6’5″ Canadian lost his serve only once in the match, yet he was outclassed and almost overwhelmed in a pair of tie-breaks that sealed his fate. The better man won. Murray snapped a three match losing streak in Grand Slam tournament finals, and kept Raonic largely at bay throughout the contest with extraordinary groundstroke depth, excellent returning, pinpoint passing shots and precision across the board. Murray won a remarkable 87% of his first serve points, and that was 20% better than his adversary. Although Raonic secured 71% of his second serve points with Murray at 56% in that department, there was no denying that Murray had the upper hand in this match. He faced only two break points in three sets, never lost his serve, and won 79 of 103 total service points.
From the outset, Raonic clearly sensed how arduous his task would be. The No. 6 seed held at 15 in the opening game of the match, but there was nothing comfortable about it. Murray moved to 1-1 briskly, losing only one point on his delivery. The cool authority of the British player was utterly apparent. He garnered a break point in the third game, making a solid return off a 131 MPH first serve, inviting Raonic to miss off the backhand side. The Canadian dealt with that situation decisively, cracking a deep crosscourt forehand to draw an error from Murray, producing a telling second serve that was too much for Murray to manage, and then unleashing a 134 MPH first serve that let to a smash that set up a winner at the net.
It was 2-1 for Raonic, but he knew precisely what he was up against. A forehand winner off a short return carried Murray back to 2-2 with a hold at 30, but then Raonic settled into the set with style. He attacked on every point with a love hold, mixing up his speeds and spins judiciously, keeping Murray off balance. Murray answered by reaching 3-3 without losing a point on his serve, and then he applied himself diligently to get the lone break of the contest in the seventh game. Murray threaded the needle with a backhand passing shot crosscourt winner off a well produced forehand down the line volley from Raonic to reach 15-30. He then defended brilliantly against an acutely angled inside out forehand from Raonic to reach 15-40. Raonic saved one break point but, at 30-40, he missed a forehand volley off a dipping passing shot from Murray.
The No. 2 seed was serving at 4-3, and he surged to 40-15. Raonic rallied to deuce, but Murray sent a 125 first serve down the T that Raonic had no chance to return. Murray followed with with a precise first serve down the T at 115 MPH that Raonic could not handle on the stretch return. It was 5-3 for Murray. Raonic held on at 30 in the ninth game, but Murray served out the set in the next game, holding at the cost of only one point. At 40-15, his deep forehand down the line approach left Raonic in jeopardy, and Murray closed in for an easy winning volley.
Having taken the first set 6-4 without skipping a beat, Murray reached break point in the opening game of the second set on the Canadian’s only double fault of the afternoon. But Murray made one of his rare unforced errors off the forehand. Raonic then made an excellent low backhand volley down the line that could not be countered and closed out the hold for 1-0 with a couple of inside out forehands preceding a point concluding forehand inside in. On the run, Murray missed off the forehand.
Now both players began controlling matters on serve without much difficulty. Murray made it to 1-1 by holding at 30. Raonic answered by advancing to 2-1, dropping only one point in that game. Murray was unassailable in reaching 2-2 at 15, and then Raonic looked invincible in a love hold for 3-2, including an ace at 135 MPH down the T for 40-0. Murray promptly held at 15 for 3-3, releasing an ace of his own in that game that took him to 40-15.
But Raonic was pressed hard on his delivery in the seventh game. At 40-30, he netted a forehand first volley from close range, one of his few miscues in the match up at the net. He would win 46 of 74 points (62%) when advancing to the forecourt. Raonic garnered a second game point, but Murray forced him into an errant forehand half volley with a terrific forehand pass. Murray moved to break point with an extraordinary backhand passing shot down the line winner off an awkward low volley from the Canadian.
Raonic refused to surrender here. He saved the break point with a crisp backhand volley crosscourt, making it impossible for Murray to pass him. An ace out wide enabled Raonic to reach game point, and then he held on for 4-3 with a trademark chipped backhand approach drawing a passing shot error from the British competitor. Murray drew level at 4-4 with a comfortable hold, and then Raonic found himself back in a dangerous zone. Serving in the ninth game, he was locked at 30-30 when he came at Murray ferociously with a 147 MPH first serve to the backhand. Somehow Murray made the return but Raonic approached off the forehand. Murray was ready, driving a two-hander into the clear for a passing shot winner.
The 29-year-old was up break point and on the verge of serving for a two set lead. But inexplicably he netted a backhand slice. Murray immediately earned a second break point, but Raonic sent out a thunderbolt at 141 MPH and then drilled a flat forehand crosscourt that rushed the British player into an error. Raonic held on for 5-4. Murray was serving to stay in the set at 4-5, but lost only one point, reaching 5-5 with a scorching down the line forehand setting up a winning overhead. Raonic served a magnificent game to hold at love for 6-5, but Murray remained implacable, holding at 15 for 6-6.
Both men have demonstrated over the course of their careers that they know how to play tie-breaks. In 2016, Murray had won 11 of 16 while Raonic was a stellar 20-6. Their career tie-break records were comparably impressive: Murray was 168-103 and Raonic 155-93. But the second set tie-break here was more critical to the Canadian than the British icon. Winning from two sets down against someone as fit and focussed as Murray—who had the added benefit of feeding off the unbridled passion of the Centre Court fans—was going to be a nearly impossible obstacle to overcome.
Murray was very fortunate on the first point. His return of serve landed accidentally short. Raonic moved forward to address it but bungled a backhand into the net. Murray had the mini-break for 1-0. He made the most of it. Raonic attacked on the second point but Murray’s passing shot off the backhand was too good. Raonic missed a half volley down the line and then netted a backhand passing shot on the run.
Murray had established a 3-0 lead. Raonic won the next point but then Murray hoisted one of his patented defensive lobs—nobody does that better in tennis—and Raonic had to play a smash on the bounce. Murray’s tactical savvy paid off handsomely as he deftly angled a forehand passing shot for a winner. Now up a double mini-break, Murray rolled to 5-1 with a backhand down the line winner, and he made it 6-1 with a service winner to the forehand. Raonic saved two set points on his serve, but Murray was unimpressed. His 96 MPH second serve into the body elicited a return of serve error from Raonic, and Murray had taken the tie-break 7-3. Moreover, he had put himself up two sets to love.
After Raonic took an excessively long bathroom break, the third set proceeded. Until 2-2, both men protected their deliveries admirably. But then, in the fifth game, Murray faced break points for the first time in the match. He was behind 15-40 after Raonic had released a blazing inside out forehand return winner off a second serve. At last the Canadian had created a chance to threaten Murray more meaningfully and perhaps stamp some of his authority on the match.
But that was not to be. An unruffled Murray sliced a first serve out wide at 102 MPH and Raonic could not get the return back in play. At 30-40, Murray kept Raonic moving and the Canadian netted a backhand slice that he should have been able to handle. Murray then attacked and made a solid forehand down the line volley, but Murray replied with an elegant backhand down the line passing shot winner and an unstoppable first serve. Rather than being down a break, he was up 3-2.
The tennis the rest of the way was high level from both competitors. Raonic had two aces on his way to an easy hold for 3-3 before Murray charged to 4-3 at the cost of simply a single point. Both men held, and suddenly Raonic was serving to stay in the tournament, and remain alive in his quest for the title. He gallantly held at love for 5-5, but Murray reapplied pressure, allowing the Canadian no points in the eleventh game.
For the second time, Raonic served to keep himself in the championship. At 5-6, 40-15, he chipped his approach down the middle and put away a forehand volley with interest. It was 6-6, and time for another tie-break. And this one commenced similarly to the second set sequence. Murray came forward to put away a forehand volley to win the opening point on serve. Yet another scintillating backhand passing shot winner put Murray ahead 2-0. He approached the net again, drawing a miss-hit passing shot off the forehand from Raonic. 3-0 for Murray.
He soon made it 4-0 on a netted backhand slice from Raonic, and then Murray’s discipline was never more evident. Raonic miss-hit a couple of shots in the next rally but Murray’s clarity of vision never wavered. He hit an inside out forehand winner for 5-0. It was all but over. Raonic took the next point but Murray advanced to 6-1 with a forehand winner set up by a deep return. Raonic saved one match point, but, at 6-2, Murray moved forward one last time and Raonic netted a backhand passing shot.
At precisely 5PM, Murray had captured his first major since the 2013 Wimbledon, and the third of his career. Before the match, I had run into three-time former Wimbledon champion John Newcombe, always an astute judge of the game and its participants. I asked him for his prognosis. He answered, “Murray has played ten Grand Slam finals before, but the bookies have always made his opponents the favorite. This time he is expected to win. He is definitely the favorite. Will that play on his mind? I don’t think it will.”
Newcombe was right on target. Murray was thoroughly composed, entirely comfortable being the man to beat, clearly optimistic about his chances to succeed. It must have felt awfully good to be playing someone other than Djokovic or Federer in the final of a Grand Slam event. He comported himself like a man who believed he was in control of his own destiny. He realized that his propensity to make returns and play masterfully from the baseline would thwart Raonic.
The Canadian acquitted himself honorably in his first final at a major. To lose serve only once in three sets against the second best returner in tennis was much to his credit. In all but one match on his way to the final, Raonic served at least 22 aces but against Murray he had to settle for eight. But that was a credit to Murray rather than a knock against Raonic. Raonic was somewhat unlucky in both tie-breaks and Murray was virtually letter perfect, or perhaps it would have been a closer contest. The key for Raonic from here on in will be to improve his return of serve markedly, particularly his second serve return. That more than anything is holding him back against the best players in his business.
But the fact remains that Raonic has made enormous progress with the rest of the game. He has the best forehand volley in tennis, and one of the best backhand volleys as well. His chipped backhand approach shots are excellent, allowing him to move in tight on the net and take control. And he has improved his mobility. The last piece in the puzzle is to return serve much more consistently because now he allows too many opponents to hold serve without stress.
Meanwhile, Andy Murray has not missed a final at a Grand Slam tournament in 2016, and now at last he has won again at a major, collecting the most important prize of all for the second time. After Djokovic won the French Open to secure his second major in 2016 and his sixth title of the season, it seemed inconceivable that anyone could prevent the Serbian from finishing the year at No. 1 in the world. Now Murray—by virtue of reaching the two other major finals and ruling on the lawns of Wimbledon—has put himself in contention. He entered Wimbledon more than 2700 points behind Djokovic but now Murray and the world No. 1 are separated by about 800 points in The Race.
And yet, Murray needs to let his latest triumph sink in more before he moves on to other pursuits. When it was over at the shrine of the sport and Andy Murray had taken Wimbledon for the second time, he was deeply moved by what he had just done, slumped over, fighting back the tears, taking it all in. His nation waited 77 years for a British man to win Wimbledon, from the moment Fred Perry took the title in 1936 for the third time until Murray was victorious three years ago. There was less urgency for Murray this time around because he was looking out more for himself than his country.
“I feel happier this time,” he said in his post-match interview. “I feel more content this time. I feel this was sort of more for myself than anything and my team as well. We’ve all worked really hard to get me in this position. Last time [in 2013] it was just pure relief and I didn’t really enjoy the moment as much, whereas I’m going to make sure I enjoy this one more than the others.”
As well he should. Murray was surely bolstered by the renewal of his relationship with Ivan Lendl, who returned to the Murray team as a coach at Queen’s Club a few weeks before Wimbledon. But the accomplishment was his, and his alone. In my view, his tennis across this fortnight was the best he has ever produced at a major, and his game is more complete across the board. At 29, he has a couple of years ahead of him that could be very productive.