If you only have one shot, you'd better take it. Here's the amazing story of a guy who had not played in a final of any sort for ten years before coming from nowhere to win the biggest tournament in the world, defeating the best players in the game... before falling just as quickly back into anonymity. A beautiful story that only the 1920s amateur tennis could produce? Not even. The fairy tale is that of a kid from Liverpool who, this week, will return to Wimbledon as defending champion.
Just a different letter and it changes everything: he’s called Marray and, unlike his almost-namesake Andy, he has never carried the hopes of his country on his shoulders. Turned professional in 2000, Jonathan Marray played out the entire decade in the shadows. With a career-high singles ranking of 215th in the world, he quickly decided to specialise in doubles, from which, without ever exceeding the level of the Challenger Tour, he managed never-the-less to eke out a living. Until Wimbledon 2013: “With my current partner, Adil Shamasdin, we missed the 'cut' to enter the main draw of Wimbledon,” he recalls. “I thought my chance to play in the tournament was over. And then we got a wild card, the last one, which the organizers keep to reward the results in the last week before the tournament. In addition, they let me choose my partner! I proposed Frederik Nielsen, a friend with whom I had played at the Nottingham Challenger a few weeks earlier. We weren't used to playing together, but it went well on the court when we did. I took this decision, which wasn't necessarily the right one with regard to the rankings since Freddy was even lower than me.” And? “And I didn't regret it.”
He had his golden ticket, and the two "dream weeks" could then begin for the one who, at 31 years old, had only won thirteen games in as many years on tour. With this history, the mere fact of getting past the first round was already a great feat, since the two men he beat in five sets were Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez, holders of the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas with the Spanish team and future winners of the end of year Masters. “First round - five-sets; last sixteen - five sets; quarter-final - five sets; it was like a comedy of repetition” laughs the Englishman, as if telling a good joke. Their victims, however, laughed less; especially the twins Bob and Mike Bryan, undisputed kings of men's doubles tennis, beaten in four sets, including three tie-breaks, in the semi-finals.
"Nobody recognized me, not even in my own club"
The Anglo-Danish pair reached a rare plenitude in the field, both daring but always lucid in key moments. The most confident players weren't the highest ranked “Beating the Bryan brothers in the semi-finals was crazy. I had never defeated them before this match... for the simple reason that, because I’m mainly playing on the Challenger Tour I had never met them! In the locker room before the game, we were very nervous, afraid of messing up. But once on the court, with all these people supporting us, it was all forgotten.”
Marray and his sidekick were on cloud nine: in the euphoria of a fortnight where the subjects of Her Majesty are just as enthusiastic about the young Heather Watson in the Juniors as for the ambitious Andy Murray in simple, they won the title at the expense of Robert Lindstedt and Horia Tecau, runners-up for the previous two years - in five sets, of course! As in the men's singles, the last success of an Englishman in double dated back to 1936. Until Marray came to dust the prize list at the close of one of the biggest surprises in the long history of the London tournament. “It took me a long time to realize what I had done. At first it was too "big", I couldn't realize it myself. It was afterwards, over the weeks, that I realized, when I saw the change in the way people looked at me: I'd been playing tennis for twelve years, but until then, no one recognized me in my own city, or even in my own club! While today, the whole British tennis world knows who I am: a Wimbledon champion.”
In the locker room too, despite the difficulties of consolidating his position since this magical fortnight, he found a new recognition: “The other players also see me differently. There aren't many players who have won a Grand Slam... They appreciated the value of what we accomplished, Freddy and me. They know how difficult it is. There were a lot of nice words from the players. Perhaps we gave hope to the lower-ranked players!”
A year has passed, and Jonathan Marray still hasn't found his way to another Tour final. He returns to the scene of his greatest achievement without even having played alongside his Danish partner this year. His chances of retaining his title are non-existent, and he knows it, but it’s not the most important thing for him: “Having won here last year, it gave me a lot of confidence and at the same time some peace: I can feel relaxed, I've won Wimbledon. Last year, it was a dream come true. This time it's different. Whatever happens, I've already accomplished my biggest dream. I don't expect for the odds to be very high, but I still hope to have a good tournament. For my first Wimbledon as a directly qualified player, without needing a wild-card, I will try to honour the title we won last year, and enjoy the moment.” The advantage of the late hero is that they know how to appreciate their success.
By Guillaume Willecoq