Tuesday 17 October 2017

Murray fulfils his destiny by ending 77-year famine

Simon Briggs

It is the sentence British tennis has been waiting for ever since a wild-haired 17-year-old from Dunblane won the junior US Open. Andy Murray is the Wimbledon champion.

Looking at the scorecard – a 6-4 7-5 6-4 win against world No 1 Novak Djokovic – you might think that he did it the easy way. Three sets. No tie-breaks. What could be simpler?

Yet in all probability you watched at least some of the match – early reports suggest that more than 20 million people did – and if so you will appreciate that it was an intense trial of nerve, skill and physical resilience.

The final game, which swung this way and that like a hammock in a hurricane, contained as much tension as many a five-setter.

Bemused

"Winning Wimbledon is the pinnacle of tennis," a softly spoken and still slightly bemused Murray said afterwards. "The last game almost increased that feeling. My head was kind of everywhere. I mean, some of the shots he came up with were unbelievable. Mentally, that last game will be the toughest game I'll play in my career."

Everyone on Centre Court knew Djokovic's reputation for bouncing back from lost causes. So even when Murray led by two sets and a break, it never felt comfortable. The anxious fans kept urging their man on, and played a full part in this historic occasion.

When Murray fizzed down an ace to secure the second set, they gave him a standing ovation. When that crazy final game entered a sequence of tit-for-tat winners, they kept Murray going by chanting his name.

"The atmosphere was incredible for him," Djokovic said afterwards. "For me not so much."

After a gracious acceptance of Murray's superiority, he also admitted: "I wasn't patient enough, there were many points where I should have waited for a better opportunity."

The trouble, from Djokovic's perspective, was that he was getting so little change in the long, baseline rallies that made up the majority of the points.

Murray was showing no holes in his defence as he lunged out wide for the forehand and then rushed across to play the defensive slice on the backhand side. The quality of that sliced backhand, more than any other, was the difference between the players.

The first point of the match set the tone: a 20-shot rally in which both players were shuttling so smoothly that they could have been on rails.

Murray endured a couple of wobbly moments on his serve in the first set.

With the sun right in his eyes, he sent down successive double-faults at the start of one game. But he took control with a sequence of five successive clean winners – an ace, a smash, a forehand and two backhands – that emphasised just how complete his game has become.

"The story of my career is that I had a lot of tough losses," he said afterwards, "but the one thing I would say is that every year I always improved a little bit. They weren't major improvements, massive changes, but every year my ranking was going in the right direction."

As the spectators fanned themselves furiously in the torrid atmosphere, Murray dropped behind early in the second set.

Feeling the urgency of his plight, Djokovic worked his counter-intuitive magic and became more assertive, more self-confident.

The match was already moving past the duration of the women's final – 81 minutes – yet it felt like we were still in the first act.

On Twitter, a watching Andy Roddick warned that "These guys are killing each other... they won't be able to stand if they play five sets." Had the first two sets been split, it would have been ominous, for Murray lost the Australian Open final in January in exactly that scenario.

Djokovic is built like a road-runner, so lean and efficient that he seems to grow stronger the longer a match goes on. But grass-court tennis favours attackers over defenders, and Djokovic was struggling to bring his endurance into play.

He wanted to establish the retrieving rhythm he found against Juan Martin del Potro in Friday's semi-final, where he slides into his wide shots and keeps getting one more ball back until his opponent self-destructs. But Murray was just too clinical, and those desperate lunges were finding only air.

As that crucial second set drew to a close, Djokovic's equanimity was disturbed by a series of close calls that went against him. He used up all his Hawk-Eye challenges and then started laying into Mohamed Lahyani, the chair umpire, when another Murray slice caught the tiniest sliver of the back of the line. To the line judges' credit, this was a superbly officiated final and there was only one clear error in the whole match.

While Djokovic raged, Murray pounced, reeling off a sequence of eight games out of nine that carried him to 2-0 up in the third set.

Yet Djokovic has never been known to go quietly. Flicking through his vast database of options, he found one tactic he had yet to try – the drop shot.

And he played it again and again for the next few games, like a golfer reduced to taking an iron off the tee because his driver is spraying the ball everywhere.

The surprising thing was that it worked, at least for a while. Djokovic was out-Murraying Murray with these little deft touches, and Murray's legs looked heavier and heavier as he now had to move forward and back as well as side to side.

What to do? On the sixth or seventh time of asking, Murray took a leaf from Ivan Lendl's book and drove the ball from close range at Djokovic's throat – the throat of his racket, from where it bounced harmlessly to the floor.

That was the end of the drop shots, and now Murray was closing in on his target with cold-eyed intensity.

As he served for the match, Murray maintained his mastery of that awkward yellow ball through everything that Djokovic threw at him.

It would have been so easy to slip back from the brink as the first three match points evaded him.

But he kept the faith.

Finally, Djokovic netted a backhand on the fourth match point. The 77-year wait was over, and Murray bounced around the court with his teeth gritted in a grimace of delight.

His greatest moment was also one of his hardest-won, which is as it should be. That curly-headed 17-year-old had fulfilled his destiny. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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