His considerable lead, and a chance at history, slipping away, Andy Murray dug deep for stamina and mental strength, outlasting Novak Djokovic in a thrilling five-set, nearly five-hour US Open final on Monday.
It had been 76 years since a British man won a Grand Slam singles championship and, at least for Murray, it was well worth the wait.
Ending a nation’s long drought and snapping his own four-final skid in majors, Murray finally pulled through with everything at stake on a Grand Slam stage, shrugging off defending champion Djokovic’s comeback bid to win 7-6 (12/10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2.
“Relief is probably the best word I would use to describe how I’m feeling just now,” Murray said. “You do think: ‘Is it ever going to happen?’”
Murray already had showed he could perform on a big stage by winning the gold medal in front of a home crowd at the London Olympics last month, but this was different. This was a Grand Slam tournament, the standard universally used to measure tennis greatness, and the 287th since Britain’s Fred Perry won the 1936 US Championships, as the event was known back then.
“He deserved to win this Grand Slam more than anybody,” Djokovic said of Murray, who will rise to No. 3 in the world rankings behind No. 1 Roger Federer and No. 2 Djokovic.
Murray versus Djokovic was a test of will as much as skill, lasting 4 hours, 54 minutes, tying the record for the longest US Open final. The first-set tiebreaker’s 22 points set a tournament mark. They repeatedly produced fantastic, tales-in-themselves points, lasting 10, 20, 30, even 55 — yes, 55 — strokes, counting the serve.
The crowd gave a standing ovation to salute one majestic, 30-stroke point in the fourth set that ended with Murray’s forehand winner as Djokovic fell to the court, slamming on his left side.
“Novak is so, so strong. He fights until the end in every single match,” Murray said. “I don’t know how I managed to come through in the end.”
As the finish approached, Djokovic — who had won eight consecutive five-set matches, including in the semi-finals (against Murray) and final (against Rafael Nadal) at the Australian Open in January — was the one looking fragile, trying to catch breathers and doing deep knee bends at the baseline to stretch his aching groin muscles. After getting broken to trail 5-2 in the fifth, Djokovic had his legs massaged by a trainer.
“Well, any loss is a bad loss. There is no question about it,” Djokovic said. “I’m disappointed to lose the match, but in the back of my mind I knew that I gave it all. I really, really tried to fight my way back.”
No one had blown a two-set lead in the US Open final since 1949 and Murray was determined not to claim that distinction.
When Djokovic sent a forehand long on the final point, Murray crouched and covered his mouth with both hands, as though even he could not believe the moment had actually arrived. The 25-year-old Scot took off his sneakers, grimacing with each step as he gingerly stepped across the court. Djokovic came around to offer congratulations and a warm embrace, while Chariots of Fire blared over the Arthur Ashe Stadium loudspeakers.
Murray was one of only two men in the professional era, which began in 1968, to have lost his first four Grand Slam finals — against Djokovic in last year’s Australian Open and against Federer at the 2008 US Open, the 2010 Australian Open and this year’s Wimbledon.