The symmetry was almost as unbelievable as the achievement. Andy Murray’s win over Novak Djokovic on Monday night – and that simple word does not do it justice – ended the barren grand-slam singles run for British men at 76 years and came exactly 79 years to the day after Fred Perry won the first of his three US Open titles.
The four hours, 54 minutes it took for him to finally drain the energy out of Novak Djokovic equalled the longest US Open final in history, set when Mats Wilander beat Ivan Lendl in 1988. The latter’s partnership with the Scot has yielded incredible fruit in the space of eight and a half months, first with Olympic gold and now a first grand slam title. It even made Lendl smile. Well, almost.
Murray also followed in Lendl’s footsteps in winning his first slam at the fifth attempt. Lendl came from two sets down to beat John McEnroe in the French Open final and on Monday, Murray let slip a two-set lead before seeing off a tiring Djokovic in another thriller. Short of saving match points and coming from two sets down to do it, could there be a better way to do it? Fending off Djokovic, who back at him like a man possessed, recovering from a mid-match physical lapse as the exertions of those enormous rallies hit his legs and finally, holding his nerve to get across the line, was a stunning effort. It was nice to hear him say as much in his post-match press conference, where he also opened up about the doubts he has had at times in his career, especially after losing to Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final in July.
When you have not yet achieved something, you never quite know if you’re capable of it. Having gone so close four times before, Murray had doubts about whether he would ever win one of the big four events. His Olympic triumph, though not considered as big as a grand slam by tennis historians, was a massive achievement and not only eased some of the pressure he felt, but perhaps it also made him a champion in the eyes of his rivals. That’s not to say that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic did not already think of him that way, but seeing it in black and white, and in Djokovic and Federer’s case, on the court at the Olympics, may have made the slightest psychological difference.
Though Djokovic spent five hours less on court than Murray en route to the final, the Scot had the benefit of a day off while Djokovic was expending energy in beating David Ferrer in the semis on the Sunday, after weather pushed their match back a day. Whether it helped Murray or not is hard to say, but it certainly didn’t hurt. That’s the kind of luck he had not had in the past and he just made the most of it.
After a physical and no doubt mental lapse in the third set when Djokovic hit back strongly, it was great to see Murray recover well toward the end of the fourth and then, at the start of the fifth, come good again. It’s a fascinating mental battle when a match goes into a fifth set and even though he had let slip a two-set lead, when the decider began, the momentum was not necessarily with Djokovic, for human nature just means you feel you have done the hard work. That can lead to a lapse in itself and that’s what happened to the Serb, allowing Murray, who had clicked back into an aggressive gear, to take advantage.
As he said later, all he wanted to do from that moment on was to give it everything and not have any regrets and the way he played, in what were difficult conditions throughout in tough winds, was close to perfect. When Djokovic saved the first match point at 5-2, 40-0 there were doubtless plenty of people who were thinking the match was still alive and when Murray went to serve from the wrong side of the court on the second match point, it betrayed the obvious nerves he must have been feeling but he closed it out impressively.
Afterwards he seemed almost in shock but the over-riding feeling from Murray was one of relief. Relief that he had done it, achieved his lifetime goal and relief that all the pressure that is constantly sent his way is off his back, for good. Fred Perry, as Murray said himself, was perhaps smiling down on his achievement and no longer will the new US Open champion have to answer the same old questions about the lack of British champions. Murray is a genuinely nice man, always polite and courteous and he deserves his triumph, not least for the enormous work he has put in to transform himself from a hugely talented player into a seasoned, mentally strong winner.
And what now? Well the consensus among his peers and among former champions is that when he wins one, the floodgates will open. Providing he is fully fit, he will be right up there with a great chance in Australia, where he has twice reached the final and this year’s ATP World Tour Finals will be an obvious target. Should he manage that then the world No 1 spot will be a realistic aim in the first part of next year and with the belief that winning such a big title will give him, more may well follow. But if they don’t, then he has still won one and in an era when Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have been so incredible dominant, that’s a phenomenal achievement in itself.