Andy Murray has won Wimbledon, Olympic gold and six ATP Tour titles in 2016 – his most recent in Sunday’s Paris Masters final This has been the era where British sport has blessed its loyal followers like never before: fourth, third and second places in the Olympic medal table; the Tour de France yellow jersey won in four of the past five years; the miracle of a first male Wimbledon champion in 77 years, a marvel repeated three years on; the Davis Cup won for the first time since tennis was played in slacks and cable-knit jumpers.
It goes on. A first Olympic diving gold, a first Olympic gymnastics gold, and then a second, from the same man, a few hours later. Multiple Formula 1 world titles, Lions series won. The first woman in history to win an Olympic boxing gold, the first to retain one too.
And now another bequest, from a man who has already provided so much. A British tennis player as world number one is an idea as ludicrous to recent memory as anything else in that giddy list, but with Andy Murray, we should no longer be surprised.
To a nation systematically unable to produce tennis champions despite finances and facilities at the elite level to embarrass others as well as itself, Murray is the gift that keeps giving.
Only 26 men have held that solitary ranking since the calculations went computerised 43 years ago. It is not a gimmick, or a marketing exercise, or even a reward in itself, but a defining benchmark. You cannot fluke it or get lucky with a judging panel. It is deserved. It is definitive.
“Being number one is the pinnacle of all the ambitions of every player,” said Novak Djokovic, the man just deposed, when he began his own long reign three years ago. “This is the dream.”November 2015: Helps Great Britain win the Davis Cup team event for the first time since 1936December 2015: Voted BBC Sports Personality for the second timeFebruary 2016: Welcomes first child as wife Kim gives birth to baby daughter SophiaJuly 2016: Becomes Wimbledon champion for the second timeAugust 2016: Defends Olympic singles title in RioNovember 2016: Replaces Novak Djokovic as world number one
It hasn’t made every player happy. The only certain thing about being world number one is that the day will come when you will no longer be world number one.
Andre Agassi has described how miserable it made him, how the achievement seemed to legitimise his father’s cruel ambitions and obsessions rather than his own. John McEnroe, who spent a cumulative total of 170 weeks at the top of the pile, found it lonely atop the exposed summit.
“You’re out there on your own island,” he once said. “And you feel like you’re disengaged, not only with the rest of the world, but the rest of your competitors, some of them friends.”Key stats as Murray becomes world No 1
Climbing the mountain is often an easier task in sport than defending your splendid isolation.
The England rugby union team who won the World Cup in 2003, having gone into that tournament as Grand Slam winners and on an unbeaten home run stretching back 22 games and four years, finished third in the subsequent Six Nations and fourth in the next two.
“In a game, thousands of decisions are being made, but it only needs a few to be the wrong ones for the team’s fortunes to reverse,” says Matt Dawson, scrum-half in that team. “When it goes, it goes quickly.”
It was the same for the England cricket team who rose to number one in the Test rankings after beating India in the summer of 2011: whitewashed in their next Test series, against Pakistan in the UAE, and then dismantled at home to South Africa the following summer, losing their captain Andrew Strauss and, for a while, their star batsman Kevin Pietersen.England’s cricket team lasted just 12 months at the top of the Test rankings
Being world number one gets you respect. It also makes you a target. Everyone wants your scalp. Every defeat is automatically a headline.
Even your own motivation can begin to slide, if only subconsciously, if only by minute fractions. How to focus on the next target when you can climb no further? Where can you go from the top but down?
Murray’s character may insulate him from those uncertainties for a while yet.