Late Monday at the U.S. Open, Sean Connery danced and Kevin Spacey clapped and the capacity crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium stood and roared in unison. Andy Murray, Scotland’s perennial tennis bridesmaid, covered his mouth with both hands, suspended in disbelief.
The crowd cheered for Murray, for Britain, for the tennis history it witnessed for nearly five hours. When the match ended, after Novak Djokovic’s service return sailed long, Murray had become the first British man to capture a Grand Slam singles championship since Fred Perry in 1936.
The final score was 7-6 (10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2. All of Britain, or so it seemed, heaved a sigh of relief. Its men’s singles drought, which started when Perry was just a tennis champion and not a name behind a clothing brand, had ended. The match lasted 4:54, tying the record for the longest Open final. The 1988 version, between Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl, Murray’s coach, lasted the same amount.
When he served for the match, Murray said he felt “a sense of how big a moment that is in British tennis history.”
“I know more than most,” he added. “I’ve been asked about it many times.”
As he stood on the doorstep, three games from his first Grand Slam title, Murray scowled. His expression matched the wind that made for the most unpredictable of finals and the weight he felt from seven decades worth of hope and despair and close-but-not-quite that rested on his shoulders. Murray complained, over and over, that his legs felt like jelly, a combination of nerves and fatigue. Djokovic, the defending champion, kept coming, kept sliding, his shoes squeaking, until after 306 points each player had won exactly half.
He stared down all of that, Murray did, fatigue and history and wind and doubt, and he elevated his play when it mattered most. His service break early into the fifth set lobbed some of that pressure back at Djokovic. All that remained was for Murray to hold on. As Murray served for the decisive set, one of his offerings clipped the far corner of the service line, a sliver of the edge and nothing more. That seemed like more proof of Murray’s moment, his final, his tournament, his summer, one that included a runner-up finish at Wimbledon and an Olympic gold medal.
Later, Murray sat behind the silver championship trophy and tried to explain what it felt like to break through. Already, Twitter congratulations had poured in from the likes of Rory McIlroy and Russell Crowe. Yet Murray sounded more exhausted than elated, his face drained, dark bags underneath his eyes.
He listed all the challenges he faced in recent days, mostly from the conditions, the wind and the rain and even a tornado warning Saturday. Then there was the matter of playing in a Grand Slam final. Then there was the fact he had never won one. Then there was Djokovic, a player who had lost one set all tournament.
“Well, I proved that I can win the Grand Slams,” said Murray, who admitted feeling nervous before the match. “I proved that I can last 4 1/2 hours and come out on top against one of the strongest guys physically that tennis had probably seen, especially on this surface.”
To summarize his feelings in one word, Murray used “relief.”
“Everyone’s in a bit of shock, to be honest,” Murray said. “I’m sorry if I’m not showing it as you would like.”
Lendl is Murray’s coach, the only other player in the Open era to fall in his first four Grand Slam singles appearances. When Murray won, as bedlam broke out around him, Lendl hardly cracked a smile, his demeanor icy until the end. Lendl ultimately won eight Grand Slam singles titles, but knew as well as anyone which one proved the hardest to obtain.
So did Djokovic. “I want to congratulate Andy for his first Grand Slam,” Djokovic said. “He absolutely deserves it.”
The final, the first major tournament final without Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal since Djokovic and Murray played for the Australian Open championship in 2011, pitted old rivals, both 25 years old, born one week apart. They first played each other at age 11. Djokovic said Murray won that first contest. Djokovic, though, triumphed in their first two Grand Slam tournaments. But it was Murray who emerged victorious in their most recent meeting, in the semifinals of the Olympics.
Even though he led their personal rivalry, 8-6, Djokovic said of their latest meeting, “There is no clear favorite.”
At the outset, on another wind-whipped afternoon in Queens, one that felt more like golf’s British Open weather, the conditions appeared to favor Murray. After all, he played the semifinals Saturday against Tomas Berdych under the most extreme conditions of his career, while Djokovic stumbled in the same wind tunnel against David Ferrer only to regain his footing when play resumed Sunday. In the final, the wind again a factor, neither player found rhythm early. In fact, for the first five games, whichever player hit with the wind at his back lost. One rally consisted of 54 shots, many of them sliced back or pushed over the net.
The first set tiebreak unfolded the same way the match did, unpredictably, back and forth, up and down. Murray trailed initially, only to scratch his way ahead, and he managed not only one set point but six. Each set point proved its own adventure. On one, Murray short-armed a backhand approach shot into the net. On another, he badly shanked a forehand. On the final one, he seemed displeased with a let call, then unleashed a furious serve that Djokovic failed to return. The first set lasted nearly 90 minutes. Murray won the set, 7-6 and the tiebreak, 12-10.
That seemed to rattle Djokovic, who started the second set with a flurry of unforced errors that prompted several conversations – with himself. Murray broke Djokovic in the first game and broke him again in the third and before Djokovic could blink, Murray led, 4-0.
The drought would not end swiftly, or easily, or without much consternation for Murray hopefuls. Before the match concluded, Murray added greatly to the British angst. Djokovic crept back into the contest, just when his chances seemed most dim. His lob over Murray’s head tied the second set score at 5-5.
Again, Murray recovered. Again, he pelted Djokovic with a smorgasbord of shots – topspin forehands and sliced backhands, with net charges and drop shots. On set point, Djokovic missed a forehand wide. Murray did not dare let out too much emotion, even if every person in the building could feel the history within his grasp. In his previous four Grand Slam finals, Murray won one set. Not one set in each match. One set, period. Here, he led two sets to none.
Throughout the past two weeks, when Djokovic cruised into the semifinals without losing a set, Murray advanced on shakier footing. He looked unbeatable in some matches, very beatable in others. Regardless, he continued to insist that his Olympic victory relieved an enormous amount of pressure from his shoulders, from years of questions about his failure to win a Slam. He acknowledged he “maybe had less doubts about myself and my place in the game” afterward. His last goal: to win a major tournament.
The stars seemed to align in New York. Nadal withdrew before the Open started, citing a knee injury. And while Murray fell in Federer’s half of the bracket, Berdych upset Federer in the quarterfinals. Only Djokovic stood in Murray’s way, and even Djokovic said Murray increased his aggression over the summer, became “one of the most complete players in the world.” But in the third set, when Murray seemed on the verge of a complete victory, Djokovic, like a sleeping bear poked with a stick, awakened. He evened the set at 1-1 with a backhand volley drop shot winner, and he celebrated so loudly, screamed for so long, it seemed like he had won the match.
That energy carried over. Djokovic changed shoes. Murray complained his legs felt like jelly. Djokovic blitzed Murray and captured the set, 6-2, with an overhead smash. Djokovic won the first game of the fourth set, too, and it was clear momentum had shifted in his direction. “Jelly!” Murray screamed again, and soon enough “jelly” was trending on Twitter, worldwide. Eventually, Murray recovered and won and knelt down, his hands covering his face. It was past 2 a.m. in Britain, but the party, prompted by Murray’s stamp on his place among tennis royalty, as a legitimate threat moving forward, had only started.