Maybe it was the barnstorming summer of British sport. Maybe it was the divine inspiration he seems to draw from his two-fingered salute to the heavens. Or maybe it was just the sweet culmination of a life unswervingly devoted to his sport.
Whatever it was, an ecstatic Andy Murray was finally able to lay to rest the ghost of Fred Perry, beating old friend Novak Djokovic in the final of the 2012 US Open 7-6 (12-10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2 in four hours 54 minutes.
On Saturday, Scotland and Serbia had played out a dull scoreless draw in the World Cup qualifiers. In the dressing room at Flushing Meadows, Murray and Djokovic watched together, both friends and foes, backing their respective nations, aware that tennis offers nothing so tame as a nil-nil draw.
Murray and Djokovic were never likely to draw a blank here. This match was an exercise in sustained, tumultuous brilliance that had the New York crowd gaping and bellowing by turns. One 56-stroke rally left Murray gasping for breath and the Serb gulping oxygen in the rarefied atmosphere.
The gusting wind was once again Murray’s ally. Able to junk Djokovic’s metronomic game around, the Scot broke to love in the very first game. But the world number three had merely tugged a tiger’s tail. The defending champion broke right back. On the anniversary of Fred Perry’s US Open win, the correct response seemed to be ‘many happy returns’.Read more (643 words)
So it proved for Murray, who broke his old friend twice in a first set in which the pair looked like bookends, their relentless groundstroke driving pushing each other closer to the edge of the shelf.
In the inevitable tiebreak, with the two men wading through the ever-thickening glue of tension, it was Djokovic who ultimately capitulated, in a pendulous battle of stroke-for-stroke, stride-for-stride ball-striking and mental resilience.
As set two opened, Murray cut as loose as a goose, firing hard and with glorious abandon on his remodelled forehand to open up a 4-0 lead. This was imperious tennis that recalled the bemused Raonic of round four, who’d observed that he tried three ways to beat Murray but ultimately conceded the Scot was ‘simply amazing’.
But nothing in tennis is given. It has to be earned. Just ask Murray, who’s hit a million balls a year from the age of seven, run 10,000 miles on the Miami sands and been torn from his fractured family as a teenager to live and breathe tennis 1,000 miles from home.
Back came Djokovic, piledriving a restructured forehand of his own, all the way to 5-5. But tennis is a game of momentum and Murray sensed a chance to steal it right there. The Scot led 5-6, but would it be a break or another breaker? A missile of a forehand and a Djokovic smash that missed by a bee’s eyebrow ensured the former, and Murray seemed to be closing in on his dream.
But the Serb has built a career on bulletproof defence mixed with astute counterpunching, and he rose again, the creature no man could kill – an elastic nightmare climbing from the swamp. His hitting became ever sweeter and his retrieving ever more improbable. As the protagonists seemingly entered their fifth day of competition, the Serb ominously levelled this test match of an encounter at two sets apiece.
The final set was always going to be about nerve, and it was Murray who seized the day first, breaking in the first game with savage hitting that recalled a blazing Parisian day in 1984, when a young Czech finally conquered his demons and fired through John McEnroe’s defences to claim his first slam title after four finals-day defeats.
That was a violent act of self-discovery. Tonight, Ivan Lendl, the perpetrator of that astonishing recovery, sat in the Arthur Ashe stands and watched sagely as his young charge caught some of that redemptive spirit, surging to a 4-2 lead with colossal aggression that sent chills whistling down the spine.
Lendl was witnessing the flowering of a remarkable talent. As Murray laced a backhand down the line and Djokovic netted under pressure, it was suddenly 5-2 and Murray was serving for his first grand-slam title.
When their careers are done and the two share the crate of beer that Djokovic has promised his friend, Murray will probably forgive the Serb for the shocking medical timeout he called while the Scot patiently belted balls against the backstop.
But in the end, it didn’t matter. The voice in the head that told the Olympic champion never to give up, always to believe, to run that one step further, and hit that one ball extra, persisted like a wasp around a Coke can. It drove him to a backhand smash, an ace that soared off the DecoTurf cushion and a tumultuous forehand drive that brought up three championship points.
When Djokovic fired long with a trademark desperado forehand slapshot and the New York crowd rose as one, Murray’s look of incredulity framed a nation’s 76 years of frustration, of failed LTA initiatives, of squandered cash, of plucky defeats and hapless losers.
For the brilliant Scot, the floodgates should now open wide on a divine talent forced to explore its outer limits by the greatest era the game has ever seen.