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Steve Flink: Murray takes his rightful place among the elite

9/11/2012 1:00:00 PM

FLUSHING MEADOWS—After his gallant five set loss to Andy Murray in the last major final of 2012, after staging a remarkable comeback and nearly becoming the first man in the “Open Era” to recover from two sets to love down in a U.S. Open final, after fighting valiantly like the great champion he is before bowing, Novak Djokovic was asked in his post-match press conference to describe his feeling about the pulsating encounter he had just completed. Djokovic said, “Well, any loss is a bad loss, you know. There is no question about it. I’m disappointed to lose the match, but in the back of my mind I knew I gave it all. I really, really tried to fight my way back through. I had a great opponent today. He deserved to win this Grand Slam more than anybody, I’m sure, because over the years he’s been a top player. He’s been so close; lost four finals. Now he has won it, so I would like to congratulate him. Definitely, you know, [I am] happy that he won it.”

That was a classy and dignified reaction from a man who has won five majors, from a player who made it to every Grand Slam tournament final this year with the exception of Wimbledon. Djokovic has become a competitor of the highest order, an exemplary individual who has matured substantially across the last couple of years, and a man who has learned to win with unmistakable class. He has become an extraordinary sportsman—one of the very best in his profession. His kind words about Murray were richly deserved by the newly crowned 2012 United States Open champion. Murray had suffered some agonizing losses in major finals over the last four years, falling against Roger Federer in the 2008 U.S. Open final, bowing to Federer again at the 2010 Australian Open, to Djokovic the 2011 Australian Open, and to Federer just a few months ago at Wimbledon.

Murray had broken down tearfully during the presentation ceremony at the All England Club in July. He was despondent about enduring another setback at a major, and tired of having to explain why he was unable to come through when it mattered the most. But then he took a significant step a few weeks later when he toppled Federer to win the gold medal at the Olympic Games. That, of course, was not a Grand Slam event, but it was the next best thing a player of his stature could achieve, a prize of prominence to be sure. And so Murray came to New York with a growing sense of his capabilities, and  came away with the single biggest prize of his career.

Murray eclipsed the inexhaustible Djokovic 7-6 (10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2. By virtue of this four hour, 54 minute triumph, Murray becomes the first British man to capture a major championship since Fred Perry halted Don Budge in the final of the 1936 U.S. Championships at Forest Hills. The parallels do not end there. Perry was seeded third when he won his first major at the U.S. Championships of 1933, just as Murray was seeded third for this event. And Perry won that tournament on September 10, precisely 79 years to the day that Murray made his breakthrough at U.S. Open. Moreover, Perry was born on May 18, 1909, while Murray was born on May 15, 1987. So these two British standouts are linked together historically in more ways than one.

Let’s look at how and why Murray secured this title over an unwavering and spirited Djokovic, who knew full well that he was facing the sentimental favorite of most out there among the court of public opinion. Murray and Djokovic had met 14 times previously across their careers, with the Serbian holding a narrow 8-6 lead in the series. But a pattern had emerged whenever these two clashed in head to head competition; the winner of the first set had prevailed in all but one of those confrontations. It was as if both men were astutely aware of the nature of their rivalry and the overwhelming importance of the first set. Once more, the first set was indeed pivotal in many ways.

The conditions were capricious for both players during this riveting showdown, particularly over the first couple of hours. The wind in Arthur Ashe Stadium was not as burdensome as it was a few days earlier for the semifinals on Saturday, but the fact remains that it was deeply problematic for both players in the final. Serving into the wind was a serious challenge for Djokovic and Murray, and yet serving with the wind was also extraordinarily complicated. With the wind, both men were concerned about losing control of their ground strokes, but when they were serving into the wind that required some exceedingly big hitting.

Murray broke Djokovic in the opening game of the match at love. Djokovic had the wind at his back in that game but his discomfort was apparent. Three times he made forehand unforced errors and once he missed a forehand passing shot. But Murray moved over to that side of the court to serve the second game, and he did not fare much better than Djokovic. He rallied from 0-40 to 30-40, only to net a routine sliced backhand at 30-40 to make it 1-1. Djokovic rallied from 0-40 to reach 2-1, saving four break points as Murray made a couple more costly unforced errors with the sliced backhand. But then Murray swept 12 of the next 15 points for a 4-2 lead. A discombobulated Djokovic double faulted twice in the fifth game.

Murray was more comfortable than Djokovic in the windswept Ashe Stadium, but he was hard pressed to gain a lasting advantage. In the seventh game, he made it to deuce, and was within striking distance of a double service break lead and a chance to serve for the set. But he netted a forehand down the line and the missed a backhand up the line. Djokovic held on for 3-4. He then broke Murray for 4-4 at 15, coming forward with confidence to put away an overhead. Djokovic held at love for 5-4. Once more, the burden of pressure had shifted considerably. Now Murray was serving to stay in the set after twice being up a break.

He was not found wanting. At 30-15, he approached the net from deep in the court on a sliced backhand down the middle, and knocked an awkward overhead into the clear. He held on at 15 for 5-5. But Djokovic was rapidly figuring out the conditions. The wind would swirl and pick up steam, then subside, then gather force again. Djokovic came to terms ably with the changing conditions. He held at love for 6-5, closing out that game with a 123 MPH service winner. Serving to stay in the set again in the twelfth game, Murray found himself at 30-30, two points away from conceding the set. But concede he did not. Murray served a clutch ace down the T at 128 MPH. At 40-30, he uncorked a forceful inside out forehand to set up an inside-in forehand that Djokovic could not handle. The set was locked at 6-6. A tie-break would decide it. Tension was almost palpable all through the highly charged Ashe Stadium. The fans fully understood how hard both players had worked to win that first set, and now it was all on the line. Djokovic took command at the outset of that critical tie-break, moving to 2-0. After Murray recouped to 2-2, Djokovic secured a 4-2 lead. But now Murray made his move with tenacity and temerity. He released a terrific 125 MPH service winner into Djokovic’s body, but Djokovic swiftly retaliated, serving his way into a 5-3 lead with a penetrating forehand crosscourt that provoked Murray into a netted forehand on the run.

Two points from losing the set, Murray applied himself vigorously and reestablished his edge. Djokovic was serving that 5-3 point when Murray sent a deep forehand inside-out, pulling Djokovic out of position. Then Murray drilled a forehand inside-in to coax a mistake from the Serbian. In that crucial moment, Murray had prevented Djokovic from moving to triple set point. Murray served instead at 4-5. Djokovic fell down on the following point, and tried in vain to make a backhand from a sitting position. Murray was back to 5-5. He used another deep inside-out forehand to draw an error from Djokovic. Murray had served his way into a 6-5, set point lead.

From that juncture through the rest of the tie-break, Murray was always ascendant, but Djokovic would cede no ground. Djokovic saved no fewer than five set points. He got back to 6-6 with an inside out forehand setting up an overhead winner, rallied to 7-7 with a surprisingly effective return off a booming 126 MPH first serve from Murray, and the British player would later net a difficult backhand approach. On the third set point for Murray, Djokovic prevailed in a remarkable 33 shot exchange as Murray hoisted a topspin forehand lob wide. With Murray serving at 9-8 and holding a set point for the fourth time, Djokovic returned another first serve and Murray miss-hit a forehand wide. On moved Murray to 10-9, and his fifth set point. Here Djokovic revealed his greatness, serving an ace wide in the Ad court at 123 MPH. He was back to 10-10.

But Murray stopped him in his tracks right then and there. He advanced to set point for the sixth time, and released a stinging first serve deep to the forehand, eliciting an errant forehand return from a resolute Djokovic. After an hour and 27 minutes, Murray had finally stifled Djokovic to seal the set he had to win. Murray could now afford to relax and go more freely for his shots, to unload some flat backhands with the wind at his back, to exploit his flat and penetrating forehand whenever possible. He realized that Djokovic had to be deeply disappointed by losing that opening set, and Murray clearly was prepared to expand his lead and keep Djokovic off balance and ill at ease. Murray held at 30 for 1-0. At 40-30 in that opening game, he used a well-placed 116 MPH first serve to set up a sizzling backhand crosscourt winner.

Murray promptly broke at love for 2-0 on two Djokovic unforced errors and two telling shots of his own, and then held at 15 for 3-0. Djokovic was pressing how, trying to hit his backhand impossibly hard, making mistakes born largely of frustration with his predicament. Djokovic held at 15 for 4-0, winning a 30 stroke rally as Djokovic cracked first and missed a two-handed backhand long. Murray had collected no fewer than 16 of 20 points on his way to 4-0. The set seemed safely in his column. He appeared to have a nice cushion at his disposal, and a comfortable route to success in that second set.

But that was not to be. In the fifth game, Djokovic stepped up the pace of his shots, added depth, found his range, and began pushing Murray around. Murray also had the misfortune of serving into the wind in that game. He was broken at 15 for 4-1. Djokovic saved a break point in the sixth game and held on for 2-4, but Murray was unworried. He held at love for 5-2, closing out that game commandingly with a 125 MPH first serve to the backhand opening up an avenue for a backhand crosscourt winner. Then Djokovic held easily. With Murray serving for the set at 5-3 and the wind on his face, Djokovic kept his returns coming back regularly with interest. He broke at 15, then held for 5-5 with a brilliant down the line forehand topspin lob winner.

Just like that, it was 5-5. Djokovic had improbably captured five of the last six games. Danger seemed to be lurking for Murray, with potentially dire consequences. But he refused to become preoccupied with what has just transpired. Murray held at 30 for 6-5, cleverly throwing in an off sped 95 MPH first serve kicker that threw Djokovic off guard. Djokovic drove a backhand return long, and Murray was back in front 6-5, but only on serve.

In the following game, Djokovic made a near fatal mistake. At 15-30, Djokovic missed an inside out overhead wide, a glaring mistake at a critical moment. It was suddenly double set point against Djokovic, but Murray chipped a forehand return into the net. He saved one set point, but on the second his inside-out forehand landed wide in the alley. Djokovic challenged the call, but he was incorrect. Murray had rebuilt his game just in the nick of time, and now was up two sets, edging closer to his long awaited first major title.

Surely, Djokovic had to be despondent after coming from so far back but still losing the second set. Yet he comported himself as if he was in an advantageous position. After Murray held from 15-40 in the first game of the third set with a 132 MPH ace out wide in the ad court, Djokovic rediscovered his spark and shot-making verve. He held for 1-1, then broke Murray for 2-1 with a devastatingly deep backhand return off a first serve that caught Murray off guard. A very much revitalized Djokovic advanced swiftly to 3-1. But two games later, serving into the wind, Djokovic double faulted to 15-30, and then miss-hit a backhand to trail 15-40. Murray was thus poised to break back for 3-3 and perhaps close out the match in three straight sets.

Djokovic had other plans. In a 19 shot rally, Murray drove a forehand crosscourt long. Then Djokovic’s inside out forehand was too much for Murray. It was deuce. He grabbed the next two points to reach 4-2. His fans were screaming, “Nole, Nole!” to spur the Serbian on. Djokovic obliged, breaking again for 5-2 and holding from 0-30 in the following game on a run of four straight points. Set to Djokovic, 6-2. He was back in the match. Murray was at a loss to stop Djokovic from setting the tempo he wanted. The Serbian broke for 1-0 in the fourth, closing out that game with a forehand drop shot winner and a crisp backhand volley into the clear. Djokovic was doing it all now, venturing forward more often than Murray, hitting out much more creatively , believing more in his chances with each passing stroke. He went to 2-0 and then held for 3-1, saving a break point in the process. Djokovic sealed that lead with a 128 MPH service winner to the backhand. As Djokovic held at 3-2 in a long, two deuce game, both players were accorded a standing ovation as they produced a stirring 30 stroke rally that Murray won with a forehand winner after an obstinate Djokovic fell down an instant before. The fact remained that Djokovic had defended with magnificence to stay in that point, which was why the fans rose to their feet with such deep appreciation.

Murray held for 3-4 in the fourth, but Djokovic was riding high, driving the ball with soaring velocity off both sides, serving with increasing pace and precision, volleying as well—and with as much feel—as he  has ever done. Djokovic held at 30 for 5-3, serving a 126 MPH ace down the T for 40-30. Serving to save that set in the ninth game, Murray failed, double faulting at 40-15, eventually losing that game with a backhand unforced error long off another fine return from Djokovic.

It was two sets all. Djokovic was looking almost unstoppable. The match was four hours and three minutes old. No one seemed more impenetrable than Djokovic under these circumstances. All year long, he had been the game’s “Iron Man”, stopping Murray in the Australian Open semifinals after four hours and 50 minutes, then ousting Nadal in the match of the year in the final after five hours and 53 minutes after trailing 4-2, 30-15 in the fifth and final set. At the French Open, he had rallied from two sets down to defeat Andreas Seppi in five sets and then saved four match points in a five set quarterfinal win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Now, Djokovic seemed on his way to another of his patented comebacks. He had reversed a losing trend against Murray and had built up astounding momentum. But serving in the first game of the fifth set and ahead 30-15, Djokovic was broken for the first time since 5-6 in the second set. At 30-15, Murray surprised him with the pace of his return and provoked an error. Then Murray cracked an inside-out forehand that set up an inside-in forehand winner. He was at break point. Here he was the beneficiary of some good old fashioned luck. Murray’s backhand slice clipped the net cord, and Djokovic missed a backhand because his rhythm was sorely thrown off.

Murray had stemmed the tide. He was up a break at 1-0 in the fifth. He held at 30 for 2-0. Djokovic had two game points on serve in the third game, but he missed a high backhand volley on one and was lured into a backhand error by an angled crosscourt return from Murray on the other. Two points later, Djokovic was broken again as the wind took Murray’s return and played tricks with the ball. Djokovic lunged at a forehand but missed. Murray had taken a two service break lead and was serving at 3-0 in the fifth set as his legion of fans in Ashe Stadium cheered him on unabashedly.

But Djokovic summoned another comeback. He broke Murray at 15 and then held his serve from deuce in the fifth game. The gap had been closed to 3-2 for Murray. He was not yet out of the woods. Djokovic had nearly stolen the second set from him and now he seemed to have his heart set on taking the fifth set and the match out of Murray’s hands with another brilliant burst of shot making. But Murray played a terrific game on serve, putting all four first serves in, holding at love, completing that confidence building game with a 131 MPH ace out wide for a 4-2 lead. Serving in the seventh game, Djokovic seemed to be always on the verge of cramps. He kept stretching between points. He made three unforced errors on his way to a 15-40 deficit, and then a fourth to lose his serve at 15 on an inside out forehand driven into the net.

Murray was up two breaks at 5-2 in the fifth. Djokovic called the trainer and took an injury timeout to deal with his ailing legs. But he was simply delaying the inevitable.  Murray put away a high backhand volley for 15-0, served an ace for 30-0, moved to 40-0 on an errant crosscourt forehand from Djokovic, lost the next point, but held at 15 as Djokovic went for broke on a flat forehand down the line return, driving that shot long. Murray almost incredulously stood there and could hardly believe his fate. A sporting Djokovic walked over to his opponent’s side of the net to hug and congratulate him. Djokovic has taken some tough losses this year, losing two of his three Grand Slam finals. But he has handled it all with immense character.

And so Andy Murray is an entirely worthy U.S. Open champion, and what a load this is off of his shoulders.  The only man in the history of the game to lose his first five Grand Slam finals is Fred Stolle, who met that fate in the 1960’s before capturing the French and U.S. Championships. Murray did not want to become the first man in the Open Era to suffer from that syndrome. Ironically, his coach Ivan Lendl lost four finals in a row at the majors from 1980 to 1983 before capturing eight majors thereafter. It is fitting that Lendl would be sitting in the front row of the stands in the Murray corner to watch his charge break into the elite.

This would have been a crushing defeat for Murray if Djokovic had found a way to prevail in the fifth set of the best men’s final the man have celebrated at the U.S. Open. Perhaps he was fortunate that he got a day off after his semifinal before taking on Djokovic in the final. Djokovic had to complete his match with David Ferrer the day before, toiling for two hours while Murray rested.  But that was probably poetic justice. In 2008, Federer defeated Djokovic in his semifinal and had Sunday off, while Murray had to complete his four set meeting with Rafael Nadal.

So where does Andy Murray go from here? The answer is up to him. I believe he will win at least three or four more majors across the next three to four years. At 25, he is right smack in the middle of his prime, and this U.S. Open triumph will surely carry him into 2013 with a new inner security, a greater sense of self, and an excitement about who he is and what he might become. Andy Murray has taken a major title at last, and it is time for the skeptics to give him his due and acknowledge his greatness.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.