History inhaled. And then -- as is often the case in Great Britain -- it exhaled with a disappointed sigh. Andy Murray, the great British tennis hope, had reached the Wimbledon final and was a match away from becoming the first male from Old Blighty to win a singles title at a major since Fred Perry in 1936, way, way back before the Great War. This was tennis' answer to the Cubs and 1908; that Murray had come so tantalizingly close, reaching the final match of three previous majors, was less a source of optimism than a sign that the Fates had it in for the U.K.
For as often as athletes delude themselves, "staying positive" and "avoiding negativity," Murray was too much a realist for that. He knew the score as well as anyone. As he put it to SI in the spring, "If people are saying I haven't fulfilled my potential, I'm No. 4 in the world, and the only guys that are in front of me are the three of the best players ever [Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic], then, well, I must be pretty good then ... but if I finish tennis having never won a Slam, I would probably, myself, view that as a failure, because that's pretty much what I've worked toward."
On that first Sunday in July, Murray was pitted against Federer, King of the Centre Court lawn. If you were going to snap a streak that was 75 years old, you could hardly create a more dramatic context. Murray won the first set, enthralling a nation. (Literally -- as in almost half of the country watched at least some of the match.) Then British weather kicked in, the skies opened, the snazzy roof over Centre Court closed and the match was transformed along with the playing conditions. Federer offered one of his master classes, winning the title for a record seventh time, cementing his status as the Greatest of All Time.
Shortly after the handshake, Murray consented to a courtside interview. To this point, he had never been able to win over the public. Part of it was his inability to win the Big One. Part of it was his on-court disposition that suggested that he had just swallowed battery acid. But suddenly he endeared himself as he never had before. He managed to exclaim, "I'm getting closer," before dissolving into tears.
Turned out, this was a thoroughly accurate characterization. Murray was getting closer. Four Sundays later, he faced the same opponent on the same court. It was the gold medal match for the 2012 Olympics and you could argue the occasion came freighted with even more pressure than the Wimbledon final. (They'll play Wimbledon again in 2013; there was only one chance for Murray to win gold at the Olympics held in his home country.)
This time, Murray met the moment. Gamboling on the grass, gambling with his serve and basically out-Federering Federer, Murray won 6-2, 6-1, 6-4, in under two hours. He helped kickstart Team GB's gold prospecting at the London Games; and for good measure, he returned to the court to take a silver medal in mixed doubles.
By now the Fates seemed to be writing a much different script. Nadal, a longtime nemesis of Murray, pulled out of the U.S. Open with knee troubles that have imperiled his career. Federer was knocked off in the quarterfinals. Murray sailed through the draw and faced Djokovic in the final. Proving more adept at handling a swirling wind -- the legacy of growing up in Scotland -- Murray won 7-6, 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2. Like that, he had that elusive major title to go along with his Olympic gold. Once again, Murray cried after match. This time, the tears came from an altogether different place.
History will recall 2012 as the year Murray broke through in tennis. But unburdening himself from history, unmet expectation and personal doubt, he also pulled off a hell of a feat weightlifting.