NEW YORK—It wasn’t easy; but then it isn’t meant to be, not when this peak moment in your tennis career, triumph at a Grand Slam event, has come—and gone—four times, passing you by on each occasion like a bus driver who just couldn’t be bothered to stop and pick you up, even though you’re right there at the right place and right time.
It wasn’t swift, either. The first set along took a full hour and 27 minutes, and the entire, enervating tug-of-war ate up four hours and 54 minutes of a chilly, windy afternoon and evening.
And it sure wasn’t pretty. Heck, it was excruciatingly dramatic and alternately inspiring, maddening, impressive, unpredictable, majestic, bone-jarringly physical and heart-stoppingly emotional. Sometimes it was nearly comical, but in the way that makes you weep, not laugh. It was epic and overpowering, and a whole bunch of other things, but the one thing it never was, was pretty.
For nearly five hours, defending U.S. Open champion Novak Djokovic battled Andy Murray and swirling, blustery winds on Arthur Ashe Stadium. And Murray battled Djokovic, that same wind, and also the demons that would not quit him: The ATP’s most illustrious also-ran, the universally acknowledged “major talent” who hadn’t won a major despite making four major finals.
And when it was finally over, when Djokovic chillingly drilled that last monster forehand service return just a few inches long at Murray’s baseline to surrender his title by the score of 7-6 (10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2, you had to look up at the dark sky to see if it was really true.
Yes, yes it was. There they were—pigs flying over Arthur Ashe Stadium! Andy Murray had become a Grand Slam champion. Andy Murray had won the major he most coveted since he was a boy, the U.S. Open.
“It's been tough because I have lost a lot of tight matches and semifinals and lost comfortably in my first few Slam finals, as well,” Murray said afterward. “You know, when you get so close to achieving really my last goal I had left to achieve in tennis in winning a Grand Slam, and when you have been there many times and not done it, it is easy to doubt yourself. I'm just, like I say, glad I managed to finally do it.”
Even those who fully appreciated Murray’s talent and were quick to defend him knew, or suspected, that there was a little more to the 25-year-old Scot’s struggle to break through than the formidable obstacles named Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer, the triumvirate who had won 29 of the last 30 Grand Slam events.
The fact is, there have always been two Andys out there—the brilliant shotmaker whose game was jazz compared to Federer’s Mozart or Nadal’s heavy metal, and the moody self-sabotaging outsider who carried the weight of an entire nation—nay, kingdom—on his angular shoulders, and who specialized in making more rather than less complicated. That second Andy was the one who, as on one occasion tonight, seemed almost to take some sort of perverse pleasure out of receiving a second serve with his opponent down 30-40—and drilling it into the net tape.
Twice at this tournament alone, that Andy II almost found a way to ruin what would become his moment of vindication. He was endangered in a very close four-set match with Feliciano Lopez (7-6, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6), and then spotted the strapping Croatian Marin Cilic a set and a break before he coming to his senses and playing as well to finish that match in four sets as he had played badly to start it off.
Those two Andys were in evidence tonight as well, although the awful conditions certainly made it difficult for either player to ply his trade with the crisp, precise game a major final warrants. Andy I won the first two sets, and was somewhat lucky to do so. Djokovic was tentative and out-of-sorts at the start, and he seemed willing to do anything but engage in the bludgeoning rallies that are his stock in trade.
Among other things, Djokovic played a large number of sliced backhands, a pattern that he would cleave to for the entire match. It was surprising, not least because Djokovic’s backhand is a pretty compact stroke with none of the big wind-up he uses on the forehand side. He rationalized the tactic this way: “The conditions were requiring a lot of change of pace and variety. I think we both used the slice efficiently, you know. It's really difficult to predict because the wind was blowing very strong from all parts of the court. You know, sometimes ball just sits there and you have to make an extra step to come to it. You know, it was difficult to play.”
What goes missing in that analysis, though, is that Murray is a player who’s both more comfortable and more effective when he’s mixing up his game, regardless of conditions. And that sliced backhand that works well for Murray is without a doubt the weakest link in Djokovic’s repertoire; he rarely hits it with the kind of depth and bite that can make the shot optimally useful.
In spite of that, Djokovic still found a way to hound and harass Murray, even though Andy I clearly looked more comfortable having to deal with the tricky, blustery conditions. It took Murray six set points to clinch the tiebreaker; had he failed to punch through, the outcome might very well have been different.
But Andy I did close Djokovic out in the tiebreaker, and he raced to a 4-love lead in the second set. By then, Andy II was stirring, and clearly itching to have his say. The upshot: Murray allowed Djokovic to earn back both breaks, although he did manage to play another good game to break serve and take a two-set lead.
The tennis was patchy throughout, and two-fifths of the way into the match it seemed clear that it would stay that way. But even at the worst of times there were periods of the brilliance perhaps only these two opponents can provide. Both men are excellent defenders and lethal counter-punchers, and some of those warp-speed rallies, played with little margin of error or modulating topspin, were nothing less than breathtaking. They took turns brutalizing each other, in what finally became something like a war of attrition.
“It was a struggle for both of us, you know, to deal with the conditions,” Djokovic said. “At times we made a lot of unforced errors; at times we played some great points.”
In the third set, Andy II took over, reminding Murray that he was put on this earth not to send his fans into sky-punching fits of exultation but to drive them to their knees, teeth plunged into their fingernails, beseeching the fates to be merciful. The reward for those long-suffering multitudes was that Andy I reasserted himself in the fifth set with surprising authority, something a more practical-minded observer might put down to the stark fact that Djokovic started missing wildly and Murray suddenly began serving bombs, each one more precise and penetrating than the last.
But Murray, who admitted that he was “very nervous” and “doubting myself” before the match, now found himself in unexplored—and dangerous—psychic territory, fully aware of what it might mean to lose. No man had come back to win the U.S. Open from a two-sets-to-none deficit since 1949, as Djokovic was threatening to do. No man in the Open era had lost his first five Grand Slam finals, as Murray was threatening to do.
Murray told us he thought about it during the bathroom break he took after the fourth set: “I had a think and, you know, told myself, ‘It's just one more set. Give everything. You don't want to come off this court with any regrets. Don't get too down on yourself. Just try and fight.’ I got a bit fortunate to get the break at the beginning of the set, and that helped. I settled down a bit after that.”
In truth, Murray played an excellent fifth set, while Djokovic played some surprisingly loose and error-strewn games, and also had to deal with a groin injury in the late going. But really it was all about Murray by then; Andy I had returned and nothing short of changing the format to a best-of-seven might have sent him away. The two-break cushion certainly helped Murray feel at ease when he served it out.
“It was an incredibly tough match and, yeah, obviously it felt great at the end,” he admitted later. “‘Relief’ is probably the best word I would use to describe how I'm feeling just now. Yeah, 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.”
It tells you something of what Murray has been through in recent years that he would use the word “relief” to describe his emotions on this wonderful day, and now that he’s overcome the major and rather long-lived worry of his career, perhaps we’ll start to see pigs flying all over the place.