For a moment – actually several moments – it appeared that Novak Djokovic, the indefatigable magician, would do it again. That he’d come back from the brink just as he had at the previous two U.S. Opens.
After Andy Murray raced to a two-set lead, Djokovic immediately shifted momentum and grabbed the next two sets and looked to be on his way to his second consecutive victory in New York.
But it was not to be as Murray played a brilliant fifth set and finally – finally! – delivered a Slam for the United Kingdom for the first time since Fred Perry won the U.S. championships in 1936. Murray won the thrilling and at times error-prone encounter, 7-6 (10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2. It proved to be an extremely popular victory too, as Murray had the overwhelming support of a lively crowd that was effusive in their affection for the reigning Olympic champion on this suddenly cool New York night.
The 4-hour, 54-minutes match provided a perfect bookend to the Grand Slam season, mirroring the 5-hour epic that Murray and Djokovic had contested at the Australian Open semifinals, a match Djokovic won.
This season also saw four different men capture the four majors, something that hadn’t occurred since 2003. With Murray’s official membership in the Big Four club now official, it is further evidence that this golden age in the sport shows no signs of waning.
As Murray and Djokovic walked onto Arthur Ashe Stadium late afternoon on Monday, the temperature was dropping and the stiff wind was already swirling.
And this undoubtedly made Murray feel good. After all, Murray had navigated the treacherous wind conditions superbly during his semifinal against Tomas Berdych.
Murray’s game is tailor-made for the wind. With his slices, drop shots, lobs and stellar defensive abilities, Murray is far more adaptable to the breeze than is Djokovic. And it was clear from the start Monday night that Djokovic was slightly off his game.
After the two traded breaks in the first two games, Murray went ahead with another break. Yet Djokovic would again break back and force a first-set tiebreaker.
And what a tiebreaker it was. Djokovic secured the early break to go up 2-0 but Murray executed a perfect drop shot to knot the breaker at 2-2. Djokovic then took another lead at 5-3 but Murray again came back with some powerful forehand drives. After Murray gained a 6-5 advantage, the players traded points until Murray was able to wrest control with some superb first serves.
Whether it was the wind or just outstanding returning, only half of the tiebreak points were won on serve. The packed stadium roared when Murray secured the first set, and there was a palpable sense inside the stadium that we were in for another marathon (the tiebreaker was the longest in men’s final history).
When Murray raced to a 4-0 second set-lead, Djokovic suddenly appeared tired and could no longer dictate points. He was broken with ease in his first two service games in the set, winning a total of only one point. Murray was on his way to a commanding two-set lead – almost.
Abruptly and without any warning, Djokovic had a resurgence of energy and just as quickly returned the favor to Murray, breaking him twice to tie the set at 5-5. Murray was visibly annoyed with himself, cursing and gesturing with his hands, looking very much like the Murray of the recent past, a man who couldn’t raise the mental aspect of his game when he needed to most.
One of the reasons why his Hall of Fame coach Ivan Lendl has been such a perfect match for Murray is that Lendl does not tolerate mental wanderings from his charge. And sure enough Murray regained his composure and, with the help of some brilliant lobs, broke Djokovic to win the set.
Djokovic’s strong play and tenacity to get back into that set proved to be a harbinger of sets three and four. After Murray won the opening game of the third set, closing out with a 132 mph ace, it felt like the beginning of the end for Djokovic. But this was decidedly not the case as Djokovic quickly won the set and then took the fourth.
As Djokovic went off the court for a bathroom break before the final set commenced it was obvious that Murray was reeling, that he felt like he had let a sure thing slip away. That, again, he’d fail to win that first Slam. In a moment of brief panic perhaps, he was thinking that even though he won the Olympics, it’s nothing compared to a Slam – I can’t live with myself if I let this chance pass me by. Surely, the start of the last set would prove to be incredibly pivotal.
And then it happened, a moment of good fortune that lifted Murray. With Djokovic serving at break point down in the opening game and in control of a point, Murray hit a shot that hit the net and threw off Djokovic’s timing and gave Murray the game.
That’s all Murray needed to re-instill a sense of confidence that was absent since the second set. Serving with greater authority – especially impressive that he struck several 130 mph deliveries out wide – Murray coasted the rest of the way as an increasingly aching and cramping Djokovic was obviously spent. Whether this was also partially a result of having to play three matches in three days is unknown. The sellout crowd roared in anticipating the victory, wanting to participate and enjoy this victory lap for the player who has suddenly seen his popularity surge.
For so many years Murray was the talented outsider, the moody sibling who desperately wanted a share of his brothers’ success. After Mondy night he no longer has to look up to Roger, Rafa and Nole – for he is now their equal.