Tradition stands sacrosanct in Great Britain. But Andy Murray wasn’t letting a small thing like historical convention get to him. On Centre Court at the All England Club, four weeks to the day after Roger Federer downed him on the same patch of grass at the Wimbledon finals, Britain’s Murray dispatched the Swiss superstar in the Olympic men’s singles final, 6-2 6-1 6-4 to win Olympic gold. Murray’s straight-sets dismemberment of Federer was brutal, beautiful, meticulous, concluded by a pair of whipping aces. The rout took just 1:56.
Not since Fred Perry in 1936 had a British male won a major contest on the grounds of Wimbledon. For nearly seven decades, it seemed, the British thing to do at this hallowed club was to go down in defeat graciously. Granted, the Aug. 5 Olympic final was at Wimbledon, not Wimbledon itself. No matter. For the ecstatic British crowd, outfitted in Union Jack bowler hats and yelling “An-DEE” (clap, clap, clap), it didn’t matter that Murray has lost all four Grand Slam finals he has contested, in heartbreaking British fashion. Under a blue sky filled with cotton-ball clouds—it had been raining just before the match started but the heavens mysteriously cleared—the world No. 4 captured an Olympic singles gold medal, something that Federer, even with his seven Wimbledon titles and world No. 1 status, has never done.
Britain has been floating on an Olympic high since a two-day gold rush catapulted the host nation to third in the gold-medal rankings, after China and the United States. Murray’s gold medal will only fuel Team GB’s medal mania, which earlier that day included a sailing gold courtesy of Ben Ainslie. Britain was where lawn tennis was invented. Now, Murray had brought the gold home, the country’s 16th of the Games. Britain had claimed 16 tennis Olympic golds in the past, but this was the first since the sport was reinstated to the Games in 1988. The last British Olympic victory in men’s singles tennis was from Josiah Ritchie—remember him? Didn’t think so—back in 1908, predating even the country’s Wimbledon curse. “The biggest win of my life,” gushed Murray. “This week’s been absolutely incredible so far. I’ve had a lot of fun.”
Precedent did not favor a Murray victory. Before the Olympic final, the pair had met eight times in five-set matches, and Federer had won every one. In three-set contests, however, Murray has dominated the Swiss player. On Aug. 5, the 25-year-old Scotsman—at other times so tentative, his downcast shoulders already predicting a defeat—prowled the baseline like a panther. His shots hit the line with laser-like exactitude. In the third game of the second set, when he was leading 2-0, Murray fought his way through six break attempts, prevailing after Federer’s backhand floated long. Practically a blink of an eye later, the score line in the second set stood at 5-0 for Murray. (At times, it seemed the net was also on Team GB, so many times did its cords work in Murray’s favor.)
By that point in the match, the mental victory was Murray’s. Federer never won a single break. His body slumped just a shade, and he finished the match with 31 unforced errors to his opponent’s 17. Murray racked up 20 straight points, with Federer losing nine games, four on his own serve. For an hour, in fact, Federer didn’t win a single game. Murray didn’t let up, even when he was so clearly in control. Deep in the second set, the Scot reached for a shot and somersaulted by the net. He was up 5-1 but fought every point like it was his last. The Team GB fans lapped it up, and when it came to the final ace to win the match, the rush of noise rumbling through Centre Court was better suited to a Brit Invasion rock concert. “The atmosphere was unbelievable,” said Murray. “[The crowd] helped me get a few extra miles an hour the last couple serves. I went for some big serves, and I got them.”
A joke here in London goes like this: When Andy Murray wins, he’s British. When he loses he’s a Scot. Tennis, after all, was invented by the English. On Aug. 5, Murray was proudly, indisputably British. On previous occasions, Murray has riled English fans with his unalloyed Scottish pride. Once, when asked whom he would support in a football match, he responded that he would cheer for whomever was playing against England. His on-court demeanor can tend toward the dour, pronounced “durr” to rhyme with a Scottish burr.
But it was his defeat to Federer a month ago that seemed to humanize Murray. He broke down in sobs after the match. Somehow, that rather un-British display of emotion—no stiff upper lip there—seemed to endear him to his British fans. Gone was the petulant, gangly kid. Murray was growing up, and it seemed he, too, might become a creature of pathos cursed by a sport birthed in Britain. (After winning Olympic gold in the men’s singles, Murray almost immediately teamed up with Laura Robson in the mixed-doubles final, but they lost to Belarusian pair Victoria Azarenka and Max Mirnyi 2-6 6-3 10-8.)
Federer, too, came into the Olympic finals with his own demons. The winner of 17 Grand Slam titles has never won a singles medal of any hue at the Olympics. (In Beijing, he and Swiss partner Stanislas Wawrinka nabbed the doubles gold.) A singles Olympic title was the only prize missing in his trophy case, and it may never arrive. Federer, who turns 31 on Aug. 8, has said he wants to compete at the Rio 2016 Games. But that, in tennis terms, is an eon from now and Federer joked that he could well retire—and then un-retire—before the next Olympics.
But Federer, taking a page from the British playbook, was cordial in defeat. “Don’t feel too bad for me,” Federer said. “I felt like I won my silver, I didn’t lose it. So I feel really happy.” In the early rounds at the Olympics, he had struggled against lesser-known opponents. On Friday, he barely prevailed in an epic match against Juan Martín del Potro 3-6 7-6 19-17. Del Potro on Aug. 5 won against Novak Djokovic in the bronze-medal match, making him the first man from Argentina to claim a medal in an individual tennis event.
Perhaps the best person to put Murray’s victory in perspective is another British player foiled by Wimbledon. Tim Henman, he of the classic serve-and-volley play so matched to grass, made four semi-finals at the All England Club. But he never went further than that. Today, tennis fans who don’t have Centre Court tickets sit on nearby Henman Hill to watch the Wimbledon proceedings. A grassy hill is nice—this is a country that appreciates the virtues of gardening—but a gold medal stands much higher. (Some partisans are pushing to rename the slope Murray Mound.) “There has been such confidence going through the British team in all sports,” said Henman, shortly after Murray’s victory. “Andy wanted to be part of that. He didn’t want to be a silver medalist. He wanted to continue the gold rush.” Mission accomplished.