NEW YORK — 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 U.S. Open final Monday.
It had been 76 years since a British man won a Grand Slam singles championship and, at least as far as Murray was concerned, 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 (10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2.
"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."
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Yes, Murray already showed he could come up big 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 U.S. Championships, as the event was known back then.
Murray vs. Djokovic was a test of will as much as skill, lasting 4 hours, 54 minutes, tying the record for longest U.S. 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.
By the end, Djokovic — who had won eight consecutive five-set matches, including in the semifinals (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.
"I really tried my best," Djokovic said.
No one had blown a two-set lead in the U.S. Open title match since 1949, and Murray was determined not to claim that distinction.
When Djokovic sent a forehand return long on the final point, Murray crouched and covered his mouth with both hands, as though even he could not believe this moment had actually arrived. The 25-year-old Scot removed 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. The other? Ivan Lendl, who just so happens to be Murray's coach nowadays.
The lack of a title for Murray, and for his country, has been the subject of much conversation and consternation in the United Kingdom, where the first of what would become tennis' top titles was awarded at Wimbledon in 1877.