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Rio 2016 saw Great Britain’s Andy Murray become the first player to win back-to-back Olympic singles titles in tennis, a sport that featured on the programme between 1896 and 1924 and had demonstration status from 1968 to 1984 before making a full return to the Games at Seoul 1988. Victorious against Roger Federer in the London 2012 final, Murray, who was his country’s flagbearer at the Opening Ceremony in Rio, retained his title with a gruelling four-set victory over Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro. In outlasting his dogged opponent to win 7-5, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5, the Scot wrote his name in the Olympic record books.
“Emotionally, it was tough. Physically, it was hard,” said a fatigued but elated Murray afterwards. “There were so many ups and downs in the match. We both had our chances and it was one of the toughest matches that I’ve played to win a big event, for sure. I’m just happy I came out on top. I’ve had some tough defeats in these last couple of years, losing Grand Slam finals. Obviously, I’ve also managed to win a few big tournaments, which says a lot about my game.”
One of the best returners on the tour, Murray has gradually honed his considerable skills over the years, improving every aspect of his game, not least his temperament, under the watchful eye of his various coaches. A talented footballer in his younger years, to the extent that he was scouted by Glasgow Rangers, he turned his back on the game for good at the age of 15, choosing instead to devote his energies entirely to tennis.
Murray began his long climb to the top in 2006 and won his maiden ATP Tour title at Queen’s three years later. Success on the Grand Slam stage would take a good deal longer to arrive. Beaten by Federer in the 2008 US Open final, he would lose again to the Swiss in the 2010 Australian Open and 2012 Wimbledon finals, setbacks that sandwiched defeat to Djokovic in the 2011 Australian Open final. The Olympics would provide the turning point of Murray’s career, however. Beaten in the first round at Beijing 2008, the Briton atoned with a commanding display on the grass of Wimbledon, the scene of his third Grand Slam final defeat to Federer just a few weeks earlier. Inspired by his home crowd, the Briton sealed a place in the Olympic final with a 7-5 7-5 semi-final win over number two seed Djokovic.
Waiting for him there was his Swiss nemesis, the then world No1. Undaunted, Murray broke serve in the sixth game of the first set and served it out in style. A rare Federer double fault sealed the second set for the home favourite, who then closed out an emphatic 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 victory by dropping only a solitary point on his serve in the third. At the age of 25 he had become Great Britain’s first Olympic gold medallist in the men’s singles since Josiah Ritchie at London 1908, an achievement he described as “the greatest moment of my life”.
Knocked out of the men’s doubles with his brother Jamie, Murray just missed out on a second London 2012 gold with Laura Robson in the mixed doubles, the British pair losing the final on a tie break to Victoria Azarenka and Max Mirnyi of Belarus.
Murray followed up his ground-breaking Olympic triumph by winning his first Grand Slam crown a few weeks later, beating Djokovic in the US Open final. In doing so he became the first British player to win a major title since Fred Perry in 1936 and also gained membership to the so-called Big Four, along with Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic. At Wimbledon the following year he got the better of the Serb once more, beating him in straight sets in the final to give Great Britain a first home winner since Perry 77 years earlier. Then, in 2015, Murray almost single-handedly carried his country to Davis Cup glory for the first time in 79 years, winning all eight of his singles matches and all three of his doubles outings, with GB claiming the famous “salad bowl” with a 3-1 defeat of Belgium.
Murray began 2016 by losing a third Australian Open final, this time to Djokovic, who got the better of him again at Roland Garros, where the British player won through to his first French Open final. A second Wimbledon title came his way a few weeks later, however, with Murray defeating Canada’s Milos Raonic in straight sets. That win on home grass set the Briton up for his title defence at Rio 2016, where he achieved yet another career milestone.
“Getting to carry the flag at the Opening Ceremony was an amazing experience,” he said, looking back on his Rio adventure. “It’s a great honour to get the opportunity to do that. I found that quite emotional. After the day I did it, I sort of had to regroup and get my mind on the matches. A match like that [the final] as well, the build-up the last 10 days or so, it’s been very emotional. I’m just very happy to have got over the line.”
Murray went on to end 2016 on the highest of highs. On 5 November, at the age of 29 years, 5 months and 23 days, he reached the final of the Masters 1000 tournament in Paris and in the process became the 26th player to rise to No1 in the ATP Rankings and the first British player top them since their inception in 1973. In doing so, Murray ended Djokovic’s long reign as the world’s best, one that stretched back to July 2014. The two-time Olympic champion celebrated in style the following day, defeating the USA’s John Isner in the final to cement his newly won position at the pinnacle of men’s tennis.