Andy Murray's drive to seize the world No. 1 ranking over the past six months has been a thing of beauty, and Sunday, it got the happy ending it deserved.
Murray won the Paris Masters 1000 title with an artful, gritty 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-4 win against surprise finalist John Isner.
"Sometimes after you achieve something big, or something that you maybe didn't expect, it can be quite easy to have a letdown and feel a little bit flat," Murray told the media after the final, a reference to having clinched the No. 1 ranking. "I felt really nervous before the match today, and I was happy about that."
The win brought closure to a process that breathed new and welcome life into men's tennis in the second half of the year. As recently as June, Novak Djokovic's dominance was so comprehensive that pundits were speculating he might complete the first calendar-year Grand Slam since Rod Laver did it in 1969. By the end of October, the roar of Murray's progress was like the rumble of a freight train, drowning out all else -- including the question, "What's wrong with Djokovic?"
Nobody knows the answer to that question, but we do know what's right with Andy Murray.
The 29-year-old Scot, who had been humiliated -- there's no other word for it -- by Djokovic at the peak of his powers in so many Grand Slam finals, never gave up. He never settled for the comfort of being a solid, successful also-ran.
It was never enough for Murray to be a Big Four afterthought. He still trails Djokovic 24-10 in the head-to-head, and come early February, the deposed Serb might make Murray pay dearly for this moment of insolence. After all, Djokovic battered Murray into submission in the Australian Open final in four of the past six years.
But each time Murray got knocked out, he picked himself up off the canvas and came lurching back for more. In the end, it wasn't Murray who went away. It was Djokovic.
Djokovic is 3-1 against Murray this year, and that includes wins in the Australian and French Open finals. A skeptic might argue that were it not for a mysterious loss of focus, motivation, or both, on the part of Djokovic, Murray would not have realized his mission. Or you could argue the absence of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were a great boon to Murray, on the grounds that beating two or even three of the Big Four at the same tournament has always been a bridge too far for him.
There's some truth in those theories. But the on-the-ground reality tells a different story. Although Djokovic was busy "evolving" as a human being and trying to sort out his desires and goals after completing his career Grand Slam at Murray's expense at the French Open, the Scot sucked it up and soldiered on. He was beaten by Djokovic at Roland Garros despite playing some of the best tennis of his life. Instead of becoming discouraged, Murray won the Queens Club, Wimbledon and the Olympic Games.
That trio of wins set him up for the big push, which was marred by only one puzzling loss -- his US Open quarterfinal collapse against Kei Nishikori. After that, Murray won three more tournaments on the trot, including the Shanghai Masters 1000, to set himself up for this critical last week in Paris.
Murray's final-round wins in recent months, counting backward from Paris to the French Open, were against Isner, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Roberto Bautista Agut, Grigor Dimitrov, Juan Martin del Potro and Milos Raonic (twice). His tournament losses were to Nishikori and Cilic. It isn't Murray's fault that Djokovic was unable to make any of the appointments the seedings set up for them.
The symbolic value of Murray's win over Isner in Paris is significant, but so is the practical fruit. Murray picked up 400 additional rankings points for winning. They will provide him with a valuable cushion at the ATP World Tour Championships, which begin in London in a week's time.
That's likely to be helpful to the hard-working new No. 1, who just achieved something he said he "maybe didn't expect," but something he surely earned and deserved.