Andy Murray turns the “Big Three” into the “Big Four”

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Even before a ball had been struck, Andy Murray’s match against Novak Djokovic in the US Open final was full of significance. Not only would victory represent a first grand slam title for the Scot, eliminating the spectre of four successive defeats in major finals; it would also be the first grand slam win for a British man since Fred Perry in 1936. Moreover, triumph for Murray would bookend a stunning summer for British sport, lifted to new heights by unparalleled success at the Olympics and Paralympics.

Andy Murray’s career path has been well documented. He is the man who can push Nadal and Djokovic to the limit in many Masters tournament semi-finals and finals, owns a winning record against Federer, and has picked up numerous ATP Tour titles. He is the bloody-minded competitor who has enthralled fans since he first broke onto the scene, each high-profile win seeming to signify a leap in confidence, an important breakthrough in his quest to achieve grand slam glory. However, in spite of all the promise and talent he has shown, and in spite of his formidable record against the game’s elite, the consensus was building that Murray might not have what it takes to emerge victorious on tennis’ biggest stages.

His Wimbledon final loss to Roger Federer was a heartbreaker, for Murray and his legions of fans. “I’m getting closer,” he choked during the on-court interview, a rare outpouring of emotion that conveyed how utterly devastated he was that, yet again, he had come so close only to walk away with the runner-up plate. It seemed as though the extraordinary quality of the opposition might indeed be insurmountable, that Murray could go down in history as one of the game’s most notorious nearly-men, desperately unlucky to find himself playing during one of the most competitive eras in the history of the sport.

However, in the Olympic final a mere four weeks later, Murray finally produced his best tennis when the world was watching, dispatching a shell-shocked Federer to win the gold medal. He never blinked in that match, radiating belief and shutting out the Swiss great with an impeccable display of finesse, defence and well-timed aggression. As far as rebounds go, it was both stunning and total: Andy Murray had had enough of being second best.

As the US Open 2012 reached its latter stages, Murray had not yet consistently reproduced his gold medal-winning form. Aside from a clinical display in the fourth round again Milos Raonic, his performances had ranged from the lacklustre to the inconsistent. Worryingly, this coincided with Novak Djokovic stepping up a gear. The Serbian world number two had dismantled Juan Martin Del Potro in the quarter-finals, looking very much like the player who dominated the 2011 season. Most pundits tipped the defending champion to come through against Murray in the title match, inflicting an unprecedented fifth grand slam defeat on the British number one.

Just as unfavourable as Murray’s track record in major finals were the weather conditions. Although not quite as averse as during his semi-final win against Tomas Berdych, it was nonetheless extremely blustery in the Arthur Ashe Stadium, the wind playing havoc with topspin and slice and forcing players to constantly readjust their movement. But it did not detract from the quality of play, as fans witnessed yet another classic final in an era that has spoiled us with highly dramatic, beautifully played showpieces.

At the end of a first set that saw an exchange of breaks, Murray finally prevailed in a thrilling tie-break, scraping through 12-10 after holding four set points. He made a superb start to the second set, racing to a 4-0 lead before Djokovic eventually clawed back both breaks to make it 5-5. Murray was suddenly playing more tentatively, and Djokovic, who had looked somewhat out-of-sorts, was beginning to find his balance and his range as the winds tore through the massive arena. But Murray held on, breaking Djokovic in the twelfth game to sneak the second set. He had been in four grand slam finals before this one, but had never had such a commanding two-sets-to-love lead.

Where other players might have wilted when faced with such a daunting hill to climb, Djokovic dug in, rearmed and recommitted himself to the task in hand. As the match approached the three-hour mark, Murray began to feel the physical strain of trying to put away one of the greatest fighters in the game, shouting “jelly” after long rallies and muttering under his breath. Djokovic secured a double-break for 5-2, and sealed the set with an authoritative smash.

The British fans began to feel their spirits sinking as the fourth set progressed. Djokovic, playing better than he had done all match, broke for a 3-1 lead and held on for the remainder of the set. Rallies were now lasting upwards of 30 shots, each player scraping and scrambling and refusing to give in. In spite of the sticky heat, the draining points and the magnitude of the occasion, Murray and Djokovic were producing stunning tennis, their fitness and unrivalled determination a wonder to behold.

The defending champion had the momentum at the beginning of the fifth set, but Andy Murray revealed new reserves of mental strength. His forehand firing, he secured a vital break in the first game when Djokovic netted after another energy-sapping rally. The Scot was not prepared to let another grand slam title match slip away, and held serve convincingly to move 3-0 ahead.

Djokovic eventually broke back to close the gap to 3-2, but he was now cramping, and his serve had lost power. Somehow, both players summoned the necessary fuel to engage in more hard-hitting rallies that had them running the length of the baseline. Murray held serve, and, assisted by four unforced errors from the Serb, moved to 5-2.

His groin aching from his exertions, Djokovic then asked for the trainer. Although this may have been seen as a dubious point to call for a medical time-out, Murray’s focus didn’t waver, and, serving for a major championship for the first time in his career, raced to 40-0. Djokovic snatched the first match point by putting away a volley, but his return sailed long on the second. Murray dropped to his knees, an expression of disbelief on his face. He had won his first grand slam title, and slain the demons that had been haunting him for years.

The four-hour, 54-minute contest was a fitting end to another outstanding grand slam season. Following epic matches at the Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon, a US Open that had been taunted and stalled by inclement weather ended with a peerless exhibition of shotmaking, defence and sheer will. It was a match that will be recorded in several sections of the history books, but for Andy Murray, the victory was akin to a drink of water after a long, gruelling trek through the desert.

His partnership with new tutor Ivan Lendl has come to fruition, and he is now a legitimate member of the grand-slam winning elite. This golden era of men’s tennis has become even more decorated, and belief as well as overwhelming joy will fill the hearts of British fans. No longer will Andy Murray be the archetypal symbol of unfulfilled potential; any doubts he or his admirers had about his ability to succeed at the highest level have been put to rest.

And perhaps dear old Fred Perry can finally be put to rest as well.

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