x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The uncrowned prince of tennis

A decade from now, will Andy Murray be remembered as "the best player never to win a Grand Slam title"?

A decade from now, will Andy Murray be remembered as "the best player never to win a Grand Slam title"? At the age of 21 he has many years to land one or more of the four glittering prizes in tennis - Wimbledon plus the US, Australian and French Opens - yet the niggling thought persists that for all his talent, he might lack the mental and physical stamina to win seven best-of-five-set matches over a fortnight.

Although his semi-final victory over Roger Federer in Indian Wells represented his sixth win in eight meetings with the Swiss, their most important clash ended in a straight-sets defeat in the final of the US Open last September when, having beaten Rafael Nadal in the semis, Murray looked drained of all emotion and energy come the final. Unlike golf, in which Colin Montgomerie and Sergio Garcia head a lengthy list of great players never to have won a "Major", tennis has always been more generous in spreading its favours around.

German Baron Gottfried von Cramm, Wimbledon runner-up in three successive years from 1935-37, was rewarded with two French championships while Tony Roche, the undisputed world No2 and perennial runner-up to Rod Laver during his fellow-Aussie's reign in the late Sixties, was another to experience the satisfaction of winning at Roland Garros in 1966. Despite his 10 career titles, however, Murray has yet to match the deeds of Ecuadorean Pancho Segura who was ranked World No1 by the Professional Lawn Tennis Association ahead of Pancho Gonzales, Jack Kramer and Donald Budge for a spell in the early 1950s. Although his amateur career was undistinguished - he never survived beyond the quarter-finals at any of the four "slams" - the South American flourished in the professional ranks, winning the US Indoor title from 1950-52 and finishing runner-up on four occasions, three times to Gonzales and, at the age of 42, to American Butch Bucholz in the 1962 final.

Small of stature and bow-legged, Segura may not have looked like an athlete but with his curious double-handed forehand - which Kramer described as "the greatest single shot in tennis history" - he was the absolute master of every conceivable angle and spin. "Nobody really took Segoo seriously when he first appeared at Wimbledon. He didn't speak English well, he had a freak shot, and on the grass scooting around in his long white pants with his bow legs, he looked like a little butterball. A dirty butterball: his pants were always grass-strained."

Belatedly, however, a star was born when Segura turned professional shortly before his 27th birthday. "He was the one who brought people back to tennis," explained Kramer. "The fans would come out to see the new challengers face the old champions but they would leave talking about the bandy-legged little chap who gave them such pleasure. "And so, the next time the tour came to town fans would flood back to see Segoo."

As the biggest box-office draw in the professional circus, Segura earned more than US$50,000 (Dh183,000) a year at a time in which "there were very few baseball, football or basketball players making anything like that kind of money." Murray is now established as the fourth best player in a tennis world that is vastly different from the one inhabited by Segura 50 years ago, rendering comparisons difficult. Even so, I believe that Segura was the greater talent and, therefore, the best player never to win a Grand Slam.

But, in any case, it is also my opinion that sooner or later young master Murray will prove the doubters wrong. @Email:rphilip@thenational.ae