On match point, that bloody drought crept into Andy Murray’s head.
How couldn’t it? For years, the British press has reminded Murray of his country’s tennis futility. Since 1936, when Fred Perry took the U.S. Open, no British man had won a Grand Slam singles title.
And now, 76 years to the day since Perry won that championship, Murray was serving for the U.S. Open, against Novak Djokovic, on a chilly New York City evening. Murray knew this was his chance to stop the losing streak. “It does build pressure a little bit,” says Murray of the constant harping on Great Britain’s struggles in the slams. “I realized how important that moment was, for British tennis, for British sport.” Murray, a Scot, won the match. “I’m obviously proud that I managed to achieve it, and yeah, don’t have to get asked that stupid question again.”
(PHOTOS: Game, Set, Match: U.S. Open Tennis)
Great Britain’s greatest sporting summer ended with another shot of glory. On the heels of a wildly successful home team performance at the London Olympics, and a Paralympic Games that set all kinds of attendance records, to say nothing of fulfilling the London slogan of “Inspire a generation,” Murray beat Djokovic in an epic five-set U.S. Open final, 7-6 (12-10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2. “I hope it inspires some kids to play tennis,” Murray, 25, said of the potential impact of his win, “and also takes away the notion that British tennis players choke.”
The match took 4 hours, 54 minutes, tied for the longest in U.S. Open history. In 1988 Mats Wilander defeated Ivan Lendl, the eight-time Grand Slam winner who started coaching Murray this year, in the same amount of time (and Murray, like Lendl, won his first Grand Slam at the fifth time of asking). The win also wrapped up a satisfying summer for Murray, who also won an Olympic gold medal on home soil back in August, by gaining a measure of revenge over Roger Federer, who bested him in July’s Wimbledon final.
In each of the first two sets, Murray took control early, before Djokovic pushed back. The wind gusts gave both players fits, but Djokovic seemed more bothered. Murray needed six set points to finally win the 22-point tiebreaker in the first set, which took almost 90 minutes (the tiebreak alone lasted 25 minutes). The second set, which Murray also eked out, took nearly an hour, despite Murray taking a 4-0 lead. Down 0-1 in the third, Djokovic hit a pretty backhand volley at the net to make it 1-1. The shot seemed to energize Djokovic, who pumped his fists, drawing roars from the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd. The fans don’t pay big money to see straight sets.
Djokovic cruised the rest of the third set, and after he knocked off Murray 6-3 in the fourth, Murray looked destined for more heartbreak. Sure, he won the Olympics, but remember that Murray was appearing in his fifth Grand Slam final and had yet to win one.
And who could forget this year’s Wimbledon, when Murray choked up while addressing the crowd after he lost to Roger Federer? The missing major was torturing Murray. “At the end of the fourth set, you are thinking, ‘What’s gone on here the last couple of sets? What can I do to try and change it?’” Murray says. “[I’m] very, very happy that I managed to come through because if I had lost this one from two sets up, that would have been a tough one to take.”
Murray literally caught a few breaks in the fifth. On break point in the first game, his shot hit the top of the net, and dropped over: Djokovic couldn’t return it. The Serb was spent: his leg cramped up at the end, and he was wincing. After a Djokovic shot sailed long to give Murray the match, Murray fell to his knees, and put his hands to his face. “‘Relief’ is probably the best word I would use,” Murray said afterwards, “to describe how I’m feeling right now.”
“Ecstatic” surely didn’t fit. Murray, a dour guy by nature, was far from ebullient in his post-match comments. He looked, and sounded, exhausted, as if he had just lost in five sets. “I think we’re learning a bit from Lendl,” Murray said, referring to his famously stoic coach. “He doesn’t smile a whole lot.” The press laughed. “Yeah, it’s hard to explain,” Murray says. “It’s been a long, long journey to this point. So I’m just — I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s disbelief or whatever. I’m very, very happy on the inside. I’m sorry if I’m not showing it.”
At least Murray’s win has tennis beaming. He now joins Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic in the “best player on the planet” conversation. Men’s tennis, already enjoying a golden age, now has its Big Four. “Us four, you know, we are taking this game to another level,” Djokovic says. “Andy winning tonight makes it even more competitive and more interesting for people to watch.”
Murray embraces his place in tennis history. “I think playing against them has made me improve so much,” Murray says of the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic troika. “You know, I always said that maybe if I played in another era maybe I would have won more. But I wouldn’t have been as good a tennis player.”
As strong as Murray is, he admitted being nervous prior to the final. “Before the match, when I was sitting in the locker room beforehand, there are still doubts,” Murray says. “You’re still thinking, ‘If I lose this one, you know, no one has ever lost their first five finals. I just didn’t really want to be that person.’” Murray knew that with three once-in-a-generation players dominating his sport, he might not have many more chances for a slam. “I think just proving to myself is probably the most pleasing part about tonight,” Murray says. “Because there are times when I didn’t know if I going to be able to do it.”
And now that Murray has finally broken through, Great Britain won’t be waiting 76 years for the next one.