Fab article, actually an extract from Neil's book.... Enjoy!!!! Fred Perry, Sir Alex Ferguson and the Fairy Tale of New York
- Neil Harmanhttp://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/sport/tennis/article3768426.ece
For the fifth year in succession, the US Open men’s singles final was delayed, but as the British had waited for 76 years for a champion, another 24 hours did not seem such a hardship. The coincidences were incredible.
Andy Murray and Fred Perry [the 1936 champion] were born under the star sign of Taurus — their birthdays were May 15 and 18 respectively — Perry won the title on September 10, 1933, and this was September 10, 2012; they were both the No 3 seeds.
Their opponents in the final, Novak Djokovic — who had recovered to defeat David Ferrer comfortably in the second semi-final — and Jack Crawford, the Australian, in Perry’s case, were both the No 2 seeds. Djokovic and Crawford (who died on September 10, 1991, to give the anniversary added piquancy) were both reigning Australian Open champions. Any more stats like this and my head would burst.
The forecast suggested that we would make it this time, though the wind was still capricious in nature and biting at times. It was nowhere near the force that had caused Saturday’s evacuation, which had also interrupted a conversation with Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager of Manchester United, who had watched the semi-final against Tomas Berdych, of the Czech Republic, from a private box and been tempted to introduce himself to Murray (in the company of another Scottish knight, Sir Sean Connery) in the middle of his press conference.
I don’t think I had ever seen Murray leap to his feet as smartly as he did when Sir Alex walked into the room. We were old adversaries from my football-writing days, a point he made to Murray when he spotted me in the front row of the interview room. “There are some pretty rum people in here,” he said. Murray found it all highly amusing.
Ferguson, who had bought an apartment in New York’s Upper East Side five years earlier — “the best investment I ever made” — hadn’t realised the Open was scheduled during his trip and it was not until his lawyer, Martin O’Connor, passed on an invitation that Sir Alex decided he would go to the semi-final.
As he looked down from his seat, who did he see but Judy Murray. That set off a remarkable chain of events. Sir Alex said: “I texted her and said, ‘I’m watching you, so behave yourself. If you want to look up over your right shoulder you might have a surprise.’ ”
Judy looked up and there he was. He invited her up for a glass of wine and she asked if he wanted to come down to see Andy. “I said, ‘I’d love to.’ I’d never met him, you see,” Sir Alex said. “We went downstairs, turned a corner and who should we walk into but Connery.”
The steward on the locker-room door told them that Murray was in the interview room. “Connery marches straight in,” Sir Alex said.
Into a frenzied bowl the young warriors emerged for the final. Murray, breaking to love in the first game, was the more secure, inevitably buoyed by victory over Berdych. Djokovic appeared disconcerted, playing more backhand slices than I had seen from him in months, aggravated by the conditions and the considerable competence in Murray’s play.
There was a rally of 54 shots in the sixth game, every sinew stretched; Murray was 3–2 ahead with a break, but in a captivating eighth game Djokovic came in behind a first serve, won a single point requiring three smashes, broke back and forced the tie-break. Murray had six set points (imagine if he had lost it) and finally tempted Djokovic into an errant forehand return.
There had been 90 points in the set, 46 to Murray and 44 to Djokovic. The second set looked to be a much sharper affair, for Murray raced to a 4–0 lead, but, serving for a two-set lead at 5–3, he made a brace of forehand errors and temporarily faltered. We held our breath. To his credit, Murray’s response was that of a true and distinctive talent, and he clinched it in the twelfth game.
Once more, Murray had defended for his life, nagging away so decisively at Djokovic that the Serb screwed an overhead wide to go two set points down and, on the second, he missed an off-forehand into the sidelines. Not since 1949 had a player recovered from two sets down to win a men’s final at the Open. Judy Murray needed the toilet. For once, history favoured her younger son.
But this was where the Serb showed his mettle. Djokovic remained resilient and Murray stumbled. “My legs feel like jelly right now,” he shouted as he was losing serve and, it seemed, resolve.
Sir Alex was churning inside. “Every time he looked up, I gave him a shake of the fist,” he said. “You can’t help yourself, he is this young Scottish lad, you know how much he wants this and there were times when I wanted to give him the Ferguson f***ing scowl and get right into his face and say, ‘For f***’s sake waken yourself up.’ All I could do was mouth, ‘Come on, son, you can get through this.’
“He focused on me a couple of times and I hope I might have inspired him a wee bit.”
Djokovic pocketed that set and led 2–0 in the fourth, by which time he had won 13 of 17 games. The rallies were intense, almost numbing in their brutality. Though he was behind throughout the fourth, there was a sense that Murray had stabilised, the certainty had returned to his manner, if the desire for point-scoring had not. The stunner was in the ninth game, when a florid backhand on a first set point brought Djokovic level and he served first in the fifth.
Murray took a toilet break at the end of the fourth set and remembers talking to his reflection in a mirror in the cubicle next to the players’ entrance. He said there was one set to play and all he could do was leave everything out there. He talked to himself for two minutes, his voice rising and falling until he realised he was shouting: “You are not losing this match. You’re just not. This is your time.”
He said that he felt a bit silly, but that he believed in himself more utterly than at any other time in his life. Whatever fate had in store, he was prepared to face it. Ferguson would love to have heard what was happening, but all he could do was to rise from his seat for a few seconds to stretch his limbs.
He looked across at Ivan Lendl [Murray’s coach]. “He didn’t move a bloody muscle all the match, incredible that,” Sir Alex said. “The Czechs, they are a bit detached in that way. But he has obviously given Andy that something that brought all his inner determination to the fore.”
Sir Alex really wanted to be down at Murray’s side. He has urged so many young players through such moments in their careers, with a word here, a gesture there. “Andy was at a fork in the road,” he said. “Was he just happy to be there, or did he really want it? I turned to Matt [Gentry, Murray’s agent] and said, ‘This is the biggest moment in his life.’ I wondered what he was thinking because I sensed that, if he lost it from here, it would have been a long way back in his career. But then I had this sense that he was going to be all right.”
We were at our stations now in the press room, deadlines flying by. I wanted to write this piece so badly I could feel my temples pounding. And then I saw the story form. It had to be this time. Murray held to love for 4–2, quite possibly the finest service game of his life. Djokovic must have sensed it, too, for he played a careless service game and was broken for 2–5. He called for a trainer.
“Went for his groin, didn’t he?” said Ferguson, who immediately began to tap his watch, in typical touchline fashion. “It’s natural, I suppose, but bloody hell I didn’t even know I was doing it. Djokovic made Andy think, I am sure he had that in his mind. It was clever. Andy had to go point by point. If he wins the next one he’s in a good position.” He won the next three.
A first championship point went by when Djokovic floated a high ball, Murray could only get a tip of his racket to it and Djokvic slammed the ball into the open court. Murray went to the wrong side of the court to serve at 40–15. A second championship point: a missed first serve, a pause to still the crowd, a second serve, a Djokovic forehand return a foot long, and the wait was over.
On to his haunches he crouched, a sense of disbelief etched on his face. I pressed the button and sent the copy. I believe I waved a fist in front of a few of my non-British colleagues. This was a truly dizzying moment of fulfilment. The whole place was going mad, on and off the court, but Murray was more in control than anyone. Everyone looked for someone to hug in Murray’s box. Ferguson simply rose to applaud, long and hard.
“It was a terrific moment,” he said. “I don’t think I could have been happier if I was parading a trophy on the pitch at Old Trafford. This kid had fought so hard and there had been so many people saying he couldn’t do it.”
• Neil Harman has been Tennis Correspondent of The Times since 2002.
© Neil Harman 2013 Extracted from Court Confidential, to be published by Robson Press on May 27, priced £20. To order a copy at the special price of £16 phone 0845 2712134 or visit thetimes.co.uk/ bookshop