Published September 11, 2012
NEW YORK – For Andy Murray, and for Britain, this was all rather fitting.
Forced into a fifth set, despite winning the first two, against defending champion Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open final.
A record-tying 4 hours, 54 minutes of leg-burning, stomach-roiling, tales-in-themselves points lasting 10, 20, 30, even 55 — yes, 55! — strokes.
And hanging over it all, the knowledge that Murray came up short in four previous Grand Slam title matches, adding to the 76-year, 286-tournament drought since the last major trophy for a British man.
All in all, well worth the wait.
His considerable lead, and chance at history, slipping away, Murray dug deep for stamina and mental strength, shrugging off a comeback bid and outlasting Djokovic 7-6 (10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2 on Monday to win the championship at Flushing Meadows.
"Relief is probably the best word I would use to describe how I'm feeling just now," Murray said. "You're in a little bit of disbelief, because when I have been in that position many times before and not won, you do think: Is it ever going to happen?"
Yes, it did. Murray already had proved he could come up big, winning the gold medal in front of a home crowd at the London Olympics last month. That was part of what's become a special summer for him, including an appearance — although, alas, a defeat, of course — in the Wimbledon final. But this was different from the Olympics. This was a victory at a Grand Slam tournament, the standard universally used to measure tennis greatness.
"Even after I won the Olympics," Murray recalled Monday, "I still got asked, 'When are you going to win a Grand Slam?'"
Djokovic, who had won four of the previous seven, said: "He deserved to win this Grand Slam more than anybody, I'm sure, because over the years, he's been a top player. He's been so close."
Ah, yes, so close. Words used often when discussing Murray. Even by him.
His loss to Roger Federer at the All England Club in July left Murray in tears, his voice cracking as he told the supportive Centre Court crowd, "I'm getting closer." He couldn't have known how right he was. And Murray appeared to be right on the verge Monday, after seizing an epic first set in a 25-minute, 22-point tiebreaker — the longest for a U.S. Open final — and then racing to a 4-0 lead in the second.
But maybe it wouldn't have been quite right for this to come easily, given all that Murray and — since Fred Perry won Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships in 1936 — the British have been through, the subject of much conversation and consternation in the United Kingdom, where the first of what would become tennis' top titles was awarded at Wimbledon in 1877.
Murray was one of only two men in the professional era, which began in 1968, to have lost his first four Grand Slam finals — against Djokovic in the 2011 Australian Open, and against Federer three times.
The other guy who began 0-4? Ivan Lendl, who just so happens to be Murray's coach nowadays. Murray's added aggressiveness is one of the improvements he's made under the tutelage of Lendl, who sat still for much of the match, eyeglasses perched atop his white baseball hat and crossed arms resting on his red sweater — in sum, betraying about as much emotion as he ever did during his playing days.
"All you can do is keep putting yourself in the position, and keep giving it all you have. If somebody's that much better than you, that's too bad, and you go again and try again," said Lendl, who wound up with eight major titles. "You sit back, try to figure out where you can improve, what you have to improve to beat certain players, and then you go and work on it."
As the finish approached, Djokovic — who had won eight consecutive five-set matches, including the semifinal (against Murray) and final (against Rafael Nadal) at the Australian Open in January — was the one looking fragile, doing deep knee bends at the baseline to stretch his aching muscles. After getting broken to trail 5-2 in the fifth, Djokovic had his legs massaged by a trainer.
"Well, any loss is a bad loss. There is no question about it," Djokovic said. "I'm disappointed to lose the match, but in the back of my mind I knew that I gave it all. I really, really tried to fight my way back."
No one had blown a two-set lead in the U.S. Open title match since 1949, and Murray was determined not to claim that distinction.
"If I had lost this one from two sets up," Murray said, "that would have been a tough one to take."
Djokovic knows how to fashion a comeback. He's won three times after facing a two-set hole, most recently in the French Open's fourth round this year, and most notably in the U.S. Open's semifinals against Federer last year.
"Novak is so, so strong. He fights until the end in every single match," Murray said. "I don't know how I managed to come through in the end."
Murray nosed ahead quickly in the fifth, breaking for a 1-0 lead when his shot ticked off the net tape, throwing off Djokovic, who missed a backhand and smiled a wry smile of disbelief, shaking his head. Murray walked to the changeover chomping on a white towel.
It was a 2-0 lead for Murray soon thereafter, as he pounded a 131 mph service winner and then used some terrific defense to stretch a point until Djokovic missed again. Murray screamed and pumped his arms, and the spectators responded with a roar. Murray broke again to go ahead 3-0, but he wasn't in the clear.
There still was the difficult matter of actually doing something he never had: win the last point of a Grand Slam tournament.
And, as Murray acknowledged later, he couldn't be absolutely certain he would this time.
"You're thinking: Are you going to be able to do this? This is going to be tough," said Murray, who now rises to No. 3 in the ATP rankings, behind Federer and Djokovic. "When you have been there many times and not done it, it is easy to doubt yourself."
When Djokovic, who had won 27 hard-court Grand Slam matches in a row, sent a forehand return long on the final point, Murray crouched and covered his mouth with both hands, as though even he could not believe this moment really arrived. The 25-year-old Scot took off his sneakers, grimacing with each step as he gingerly stepped across the court. Djokovic came around to offer congratulations and a warm embrace, while "Chariots of Fire" blared over the Arthur Ashe Stadium loudspeakers.
"You try not to think about it much when you're playing, but ... when I was serving for the match, it's something that I realized — how important that moment was for British tennis or British sport," Murray said. "It's something that hasn't happened for a long time, obviously, in our country."
Murray and Djokovic were born a week apart in May 1987, and they've known, and competed against, each other since they were about 11. Before Saturday's semifinals in New York, they shared a computer and sat together to watch online as Murray's Scotland and Djokovic's Serbia played to a 0-0 draw in a qualifying match for soccer's World Cup.
It was windy at the start Monday, gusting above 25 mph, and Murray dealt with it much better. Murray had plenty of noteworthy fans in the stands, including a pair of Scots who crashed his news conference after his semifinal: actor Sean Connery and Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson. The last British woman to win a Grand Slam singles title, 1977 Wimbledon champion Virginia Wade, also was present, chatting between games with actor Stanley Tucci.
With the air carrying balls and making them dip or dart this way and that, nearly every shot became a bit of an adventure. Both players repeatedly needed to adjust mid-swing, contorting their bodies simply to make contact. Both let service tosses fall to the ground because the ball danced out of hitting range. As the wind wrapped around the chair umpire's microphone, it made a loud, distracting sound that resembled thunder.
"We both did a lot of running. It was unfortunate really to not be able to come up with big shots at the right time. It forced me to go for winners or mistakes," Djokovic said. "Unfortunately I did a lot of mistakes."
He totaled 65 unforced errors to Murray's 56; they combined for 49 more unforced errors than winners. That said, there probably should have a statistic to count wind-forced errors.
They traded nearly mirror-image breaks in the first two games, and that made sense, given how good both are at returning serve. Two of the best in the game right now, maybe ever. Djokovic crouches low, his back nearly parallel to the ground, before an opponent serves. Murray shuffles his weight from leg to leg and hops forward at the last second to cut off angles.
Both worked hard, the physical nature taking a toll. Djokovic's right knee was bloodied after he scraped it during a few tumbles to the court when he lost his footing, and he switched shoes late in the third set. Murray clutched his left thigh while deciding not to chase a lob.
There were 10 points of at least 10 strokes each in the first-set tiebreaker. Djokovic saved each of Murray's initial five set points, the last with a 123 mph ace to make it 10-all. But Djokovic's backhand flew long at the end of a 21-shot exchange to cede set point No. 6, and this time Murray converted, hitting a 117 mph serve that Djokovic couldn't put in the court.
Murray turned toward his guest box and bellowed, "Come on!"
With Djokovic serving while trailing 6-5 in the second set, he faltered. On a 31-stroke point, Djokovic missed a forehand to make it 15-30. Then Murray's defensive skills came into play, as he got one overhead back and forced Djokovic to hit a second, which sailed wide. Chest heaving, Djokovic put his hands on his hips, having a hard time understanding what was happening. Two points later, Djokovic pushed an inside-out forehand wide, giving Murray that set. Even Lendl rose to his feet.
After stretching for a backhand volley winner to hold at 1-1 in the third, Djokovic let out a guttural yell and pumped his fists. Across the net, Murray frowned. In the very next game, as Murray kept up a monologue of self-admonishment, Djokovic kept up his better-late-than-never charge. He broke for a 2-1 lead, turning on a 126 mph serve with a terrific return. Soon enough, they were headed to a fourth set.
"At some point, it's going to come down to who wants it more or how badly do you want it," Lendl said. "I don't want to say Novak didn't want it. But it's: How bad do you want it? What price are you going to pay and how can you execute under extreme pressure?"
Making a key tactical move, Djokovic pushed forward at nearly any opportunity, shortening points and grabbing easy volleys wherever he could. He ended up winning the point on 39 of 56 trips to the net; Murray was 16 of 24.
A critical moment came with Djokovic facing a break point that could have let Murray pull even in the fourth set. After Murray missed a forehand to make it deuce, chair umpire Jake Garner warned Djokovic about taking too much time between points. A discussion ensued, and after winning the next point with a service winner, Djokovic sent a "Take that!" stare in Garner's direction. In the stands, Djokovic's father stood up and glared at Garner. Djokovic held to go ahead 3-1 and eventually forced the fifth set.
This was Murray's time to come through in the clutch, and he did.
Federer, Djokovic and Nadal — who missed the U.S. Open with a left knee injury — had won 29 of the previous 30 major tournaments (the exception: Juan Martin del Potro in New York in 2009).
Now Murray joins the Grand Slam club.
For years, Murray has been asked about the pressure he faced, like four-time Wimbledon semifinalist Tim Henman before him, to give Britain a champion in a sport it loves.
"I'm obviously proud that I managed to achieve it," Murray said, his shiny silver trophy sitting nearby. "And I don't have to get asked that stupid question again."
Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich