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Number 1 in Name Only

Andy Murray is the defending Wimbledon champion and the top-ranked player on tour. So why does he feel like such a long shot to win the tournament that produced his greatest triumph?

(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)

The ATP’s rankings say that Andy Murray is on top of the world. Over the last 12 months, he has played better tennis, algorithmically, than anybody else on tour. Last year, he reached the finals of three majors and won an Olympic gold medal in Rio. He wrestled the no. 1 ranking away from Novak Djokovic, who during the first half of 2016 enjoyed a historic run of form. This summer at Wimbledon, Murray will walk onto Centre Court as the defending champion, the top seed, and the favorite of the British crowd; he is forever the cursebreaker, after all.

On paper, Murray will have everything going for him entering this tournament. In practice, he’ll be treated as an afterthought.

Roger Federer is the oddsmakers’ favorite to win Wimbledon. After going titleless in 2016, the Swiss has emerged victorious in four of the six tournaments he’s played in this year. The most recent triumph, last week at the Halle Open, was a classic, effortless Federer romp. En route to the championship, his ninth at that competition, he soundly dispatched all of the traditional grass-court bogeymen. Early in the week, he put away Mischa Zverev, one of the true serve-and-volleyers left on tour (and the player who knocked Murray out of the Australian Open … before losing to Federer). In the semifinals, he downed Karen Khachanov, the young Russian who stands 6-and-a-half feet tall and serves missiles. Then he beat Alexander Zverev, the current Next Big Thing who is similarly long and aggressive, 6–1, 6–3 in the final. No rust seems to have accumulated during Federer’s respite from the clay. Wimbledon is his favorite tournament, and grass his preferred surface. What was old is new again.

The past 12 months for Murray, meanwhile, have followed a contrasting trajectory. Last July he won Wimbledon, the tournament that ended Federer’s 2016 season, and Murray’s subsequent victory at the Olympics made him the only athlete to ever win two gold medals in singles play. He earned five titles after the U.S. Open and topped Djokovic to win the World Tour Finals and solidify his spot as the year-end no. 1. Since then, however, he’s won just one tournament, the 500-series event in Dubai where he played just one opponent ranked in the top 25.

Murray has long been reputed as a great player beholden to the form of the Big Three, and then in 2016 he appeared to break through. Only that feeling was short-lived. Federer and Rafael Nadal have woken up this year, yet Murray hasn’t played either man in months. His failings this season have come not at the hands of the greats, but rather against random, ordinary competitors. He’s lost opening matches to grinders like 29th-ranked Fabio Fognini and to players like Vasek Pospisil, who at Indian Wells was ranked 129th in the world. Last week at the Queen’s Club tune-up, Murray fell meekly to the 90th-ranked Australian Jordan Thompson, 6–7, 2–6.

This is not what we’ve come to expect from whoever has been ranked as the world’s best. No member of the vaunted Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic trio has ruled the tour by being its least consistent player. The ATP rankings have very much reflected whose world it has been at a given moment. As far as recent standards are concerned, to be a no. 1 without being the talk of the town is highly irregular.

It doesn’t feel appropriate to call the grass court swing a “season.” For two or three weeks every year, players acclimate to the game’s slickest, most uneven surface before being thrust onto the sport’s biggest stage. Wimbledon represents a strange island in the tennis world. It’s also the season’s most treasured prize.

The French Open is preceded by three clay Masters Series events and a number of smaller tournaments on the dirt. The run-up to the U.S. Open lasts two months, with each tournament set on Flushing’s DecoTurf. It’s easy to discern the player with the best form on a given surface during those stretches. And the abrupt placement of the Australian Open following just a week of tune-up events makes it seem like a jump into the future.

Wimbledon, with its wearing green grass and purple accents and extremely British snacks and all-white dress code, feels like an event that exists on its own plane. Predicting a winner at The Championships hinges just as much on recent form as it does on historical success. Only at Wimbledon could somebody believe that the defending champion is simultaneously the safest bet in the field and a player lacking confidence.

In that regard, Murray is a perplexing figure. He’s truly playing tournament to tournament, either meeting goals of his own creation or not worrying about benchmarks whatsoever. He’s already secured his place in history, becoming the first British man to win Wimbledon since 1936. But when history is written, that’s when a competitor’s true colors are revealed. Murray is in a rare spot. He’s both cemented a champion’s legacy and routinely proved mortal against the game’s giants. Now, at 30 with only three majors in hand, his prime is likely behind him.

At the end of 2016, if nothing else, it could have been said that Murray was playing very good tennis. What can be said of him now?

Murray is a throwback. He represents a time when the ATP’s top ranking didn’t represent absolute dominance on tour. Athletes battle injuries and struggle to maintain confidence and, traditionally, haven’t been able to win tournaments with the consistency that the modern greats have. In the years between Pete Sampras’s fall and Federer’s rise, the tour became a mad dash for the top, with players like Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick, and Gustavo Kuerten all making their way to no. 1. None of those players ever won more than six titles in a season. A member of the Big Three has won 10 or more titles in a year eight times.

Andy Murray (Getty Images)
Andy Murray (Getty Images)

Murray’s increasingly volatile position atop the rankings is a reminder that things have changed. This season, more or less, has played out the same as many from the mid-aughts: Federer dominated the early hardcourt season before Nadal took over during the clay months. Federer won Halle. Now he is expected to win Wimbledon unless Nadal plays well enough to stop him. The only reminder that this all seemed impossible six months ago — and that it’s all an on-court slip or a knee injury away from potentially collapsing — is that Nadal is ranked second, Federer is ranked fifth, and a player who has been an afterthought this season still reigns supreme.

Wimbledon is the pivot point for the tennis season. The opening months are clouded by offseason rust. The clay months are distorted by the oddities of the surface. Wimbledon’s grass is bizarre, but it’s a fast surface that leads into many months of fast-court tournaments. The winner here will mark his territory, if not for the rest of the tour to see, then certainly for the fans.

If Federer or Nadal wins the tournament, it will signal that this is once again their tour. We won’t need to grade them on a curve anymore. If an outsider wins, it will reflect that the much-anticipated changing of the guard is beginning to materialize. If Djokovic finds his way through the draw, we will have to reconsider his pursuit of history.

In the grand sense, there are no stakes for Murray. If he wins Wimbledon again, he’ll lift another trophy, keep his rankings points, put a few pounds in his pocket, and enjoy another triumphant moment in front of the home crowd. For another week, he’ll remind everyone that his greatness is equal parts fleeting, maddening, and transcendent. If he defends his title, for at least another week, he’ll be just number one.