Winning isn’t everything, we noted the other day, quoting the legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi in reference to the most determined competitor in women’s tennis, Serena Williams; it’s the only thing. The line crossed many minds at the USTA’s storied Billie Jean King National Tennis Center over the past fortnight, and especially in the last two days when eagerness was so thick it displaced the muggy air of late summer in Queens, the great borough in the great city where the last Grand Slam of the tennis season takes place . It was almost crisp on Monday, with a beautiful sky. The match lasted five hours, however, and it was night by the time it ended, as Andy Murray’s nerve held, as did his serve, and he closed out a Novak Djokovic who managed a heroic and, it seemed for a while, unstoppable comeback before falling apart in the last set, possibly due to a foot injury or cramps in his legs.
Novak Djokovic, the defending champion here by virtue of remarkable victories over Roger Federer in last year’s semis and Rafa Nadal in the final, has had an up and down season since winning the Australian Open last January (in the longest, and many observers think the best, match ever played at that tournament, also against Nadal). He lost to Nadal during the clay season (including the final at the French Open), was defeated in the semis at Wimbledon by Federer (the eventual winner over Murray). He then had an excellent summer hard court season in North America, called the U.S. Open Series, putting him in position to win the extra million shimoleons put up by the sponsor for the winner at Flushing Meadows.
Keeping this in perspective, it means that rather than dominating the entire season, as he did in 2011, Djokovic merely shared the distinction of being Best in the World with three others — Nadal, Roger Federer, and Andy Murray, who with his decisive win here on Monday night gives substance to the term, used a bit shakily in the past few years, “Big Four” and becomes the first British man since Fred Perry in 1936, also in the U.S. Championship (as it was called) to win a major. As Murray won Olympic gold along with quite a few other British athletes, it may be that the decline-of-Britain pessimists will perk up.
It certainly could be said that Andy Murray competed for England last night, I mean Scotland, well I mean England and Scotland both or simply Great Britain or maybe even just himself and his mom, who was watching, in a typically British way, bold and shrewd. When you are a little island nation with a small population and yet you conquer the whole world practically (and then have the class to give it up and start anew), you need boldness and shrewdness because you certainly cannot rely on power alone, like, come to think of it — but let us not go down that road just now, it leads to worrisome thoughts and we are in an election season and must keep the spirit up.
He took the first two sets boldly, fighting like a lion against a surprised Djokovic, who played as if he expected that any moment the natural order of things would be restored and his dominance would assert itself. The first set lasted 90 minutes, with an excruciating tiebreak that went from Murray down 3-5 to 10-8. The natural order of things was restored in the second and third sets, not so much because it did as because Murray’s boldness faltered. But he had the presence of mind to notice Djokovic was not playing consistently, and with several clever plays — rallies that went all over the court with all manners of shots — in the second half of the match, which did not all go to him but which demonstrated to the Serb that Murray was going to out-endure him over five sets, he seems to have broken his will, which is practically unheard of. Usually it is Murray who falters, begins to torture himself with doubt and self-destruction; Djokovic is the iron man. But this time the roles reversed, and especially during the last games of the fifth set, when his last service game was broken and then he let Murray hold his own easily, it was as if he knew it was over, England the Top Country. They were both good sports at the awards ceremony, too.
Sports, as a collective cultural activity, is only one measure of a society’s health, to be sure. The Soviet Union and a frightful place called East Germany were, some decades ago, world sports powers, but as societies they were sick. For that matter, they were quite good in some other areas that might be used in devising an index of social wellbeing, classical dance for one, in the Soviet case.
And nowadays, due to globalization and the inadequacies of public education in many countries, it is not at all certain that a society in which there are champions can take credit for nurturing them. Exceptional athletes are cosmopolitan creatures, offering their services to the highest bidder. Who, while we are at it, may well not be a product of the society on whose behalf he is bidding. Thus, a Russian oligarch buys a British football team, for which he hires players from South America.
This is simply to say that it may be that in taking pride in Andy Murray’s achievements this summer, Britons may be substituting a fantasy for the champion they think represents them. That is what champion, in the classical understanding, does: defends his village, his city in a competition (not necessarily an athletic one), and for this reason the village supports the champion, no matter his opinions, politics, or what-not. He is theirs, they are his, the loyalty is clear and simple.
For all I know maybe it is still more like that than seems to be the case. And of course none of this would take away anything from the tremendous achievement of today’s top tennis players, as such. I have no idea, though it may an interesting question, whether the qualities tennis players display on the courts are transferred to other areas of their lives. My guess would be that they are, simply because you bring your qualities with you wherever you go; but not always. Consider Bobby Fischer, the chess genius, eccentric to the point of damaging his private life: you would not say he brought the qualities of his game to other areas of his life.
Andy Murray for several years was explained as a kind of schlemiel, to use the Yiddish expression. He was the hard-luck guy, born to lose. Lose is relative; he was from a very early age one of the very top players in the game. But he happened to have as near contemporaries three champions from S countries, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and of course the current era’s king of courts, Roger Federer. The fact that Murray too was from an S country was of no avail, he kept losing in semifinals, or finals, to one of the others. Maybe if Scotland were an independent country and not a country that is part of the United Kingdom, things would be different. And in fact, Murray attracted support from Scot nationalists; Sean Connery, known as the best interpreter in film of that perfect representative of the English gentleman, James Bond, was in the audience at Arthur Ashe Stadium. But what does it mean, what does he really mean to them? Murray’s coach, and presumably the man who deserves much of the credit for fix his game and help him succeed at a Grand Slam, is Ivan Lendl, one of the sport’s all-time greats, who is from Ostrava, much closer to Djokovic’s home neighborhood than Murray’s.
All this should demonstrate that Queens, which is home to people from practically every country in the world — nearly 50 percent of the residents of the borough are foreign-born — and where the police and court system have counted no less than a hundred languages in current use in the neighborhoods, is so well suited as the home of the U.S. Open. It is, indeed, the U.S. Open: the hoopla as well as the smooth organization are distinctly American. But it is also a great international event, one that anywhere else probably could not make visitors and competitors from all over the world feel so comfortable, welcome, and at home.
Queens is not the only portal to the promised land, but it is as good an example as any other of why we call ourselves a nation of immigrants, a social melting pot, a land of opportunity for anyone yearning to be judged on his own qualities and to make his way in life on his own merits. Particularly since the Olympics were hosted by the great city of London this year, whose mayor Boris Johnson, New York born, should have been drafted by the Republicans to — but never mind, I promised to stop harping on this once the nomination was done and finished — and Andy Murray was able to win gold for Britain on home ground, it seems fitting that his breakthrough should have been here, on the court of dreams at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows, in Queens, in New York.