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Steve Flink: Murray at last is Wimbledon Champion

7/7/2013 5:00:00 PM

WIMBLEDON—Across the many years that I have been coming to Wimbledon—37 in a row as a reporter, nine before that as a fan and reporter in the making, 46 altogether—I have always loved this tournament. I watched Roy Emerson capture the event in 1965 the first time I came here, witnessed Rod Laver ruling on the lawns twice, saw Bjorn Borg sweeping five championships in a row from 1976-80. I deeply admired the grass court craft and greatness of Pete Sampras when he secured seven titles between 1993 and 2000, marveled at the grace and elegance of Roger Federer during his seven championship runs, and felt awfully fortunate to be here when Rafael Nadal toppled Federer five years ago in the best match of my lifetime. Wimbledon stands alone at the top of the Grand Slam mountain for its prestige, impact and visibility as a supreme sporting event that transcends tennis. It will never be surpassed as the single most important tournament of them all.

That is why today’s triumph recorded by Andy Murray will live forever in my treasure chest of memories in a special compartment. Murray made history of the highest order with his 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 victory over 2011 Wimbledon victor Novak Djokovic in the final. No British male player had won the world’s premier tournament since Fred Perry took his third crown in a row 77 years ago, way back in the summer of 1936. Murray had already established himself last year at the U.S. Open as the first British man to be victorious at a Grand Slam event since Perry won at Forest Hills in September of 1936, defeating Djokovic in a hard fought, five set final in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Securing that first major—on the heels of a popular triumph at the Olympic Games at the All England Club last July—was immensely gratifying to Murray after so many frustrations at the Grand Slam events. He had lost his first final at a Grand Slam event to Federer at the U.S. Open in 2008, and then fell in three more title round contests in 2010, 2011, and again last year, when Federer rallied to beat him in four sets on the Centre Court. Prior to that agonizing setback against the Swiss, Murray had been a semifinalist three years in a row at his country’s major. That record was ample proof that Murray was fully capable of coming through when it counted on the most fabled stage in tennis, but the fact remained that some great players have never won Wimbledon despite often being on the edge of realizing the feat.

The diminutive Australian Ken Rosewall reached four finals between 1954 and 1974 but never tasted the champagne. And, of course, Ivan Lendl had to settle for two appearances in the final (in 1986 and 1987) but did not ever claim the title he wanted to badly. It was a poignant moment when Murray acknowledged Lendl’s significant role as his coach during the post-match ceremony today because Lendl surely took great pride and pleasure in knowing he had contributed substantially to Murray’s breakthrough win. It can be no accident that Murray has moved past his demons and taken two majors and an Olympic gold medal in less than a year, all with Lendl providing invaluable council.

And yet, his win over a beleaguered Djokovic was mostly about Murray’s response to the occasion, his full belief that he could do it this time around, his poise and perspicacity. Moreover, it was a case of Djokovic running out of emotional energy and physical resources after being stretched for four hours and 33 minutes over five pulsating sets by Juan Martin Del Potro. Murray arrived for this final round appointment fresh and confident, eager and fully prepared to do whatever it took to prevail. He was ready, and it was as simple as that. Djokovic was largely a spent force, fighting valiantly for survival but knowing that he was too far away from the top of his game to overcome such a formidable adversary. In many ways, this was destiny for Murray and a celebratory day for a nation; the Centre Crowd has seldom if ever more vociferously vented their support for a player. The noise was almost deafening at times, the glee unrestrained, the sentimental feeling unmistakable. At times in the past, a less mature Murray might have been overwhelmed by the responsibility of it all, but not now, not this time.

From the beginning, there was a strange sense of destiny in the air, as if this had all been preordained. Djokovic drifted into immediate trouble with three consecutive unforced errors on his way to a 0-40 deficit in the first game of the match. He managed to work his way out of that bind by capturing five points in a row, but he seemed to know that this might well be a trying day for him. Murray served terrifically to make it 1-1, holding at 15, releasing two aces (both at 131 MPH down the T) in that game. Djokovic, however, was out of sorts and uncomfortable off the ground. The third game went to four deuces. On the last of those deuces, Djokovic gave one of his backhand drop shots too much air, and Murray unleashed a trademark running forehand passing shot down the line to break for 2-1.

Djokovic broke back at 15 for 2-2 as Murray missed three of five first serves. Djokovic then held on for 3-2, but did so unconvincingly. Murray held at love for 3-3, opening that game with another ace down the T at 126 MPH. He then broke Djokovic at love for 4-3 as the Serbian made only one of four first serves while being rocked back on his heels by the first class returning of the British player. Murray commenced the following game with a pair of double faults, and he soon trailed 15-40. He saved the first break point with a 129 MPH ace down the T, wiped away the next with a forehand volley winner into an open court, and later cast aside a third break point with a bold move, crushing an inside-out forehand with abandon before moving forward for a winning volley. Murray held on gamely for 5-3.

That was a crucial hold. Djokovic fought his way out of a 0-30 corner in the following game, but Murray was composed, confident and unflustered when he served for the set at 5-4. An ace took him to 30-0, a cagey slice serve wide that induced an error made it 40-0, and Murray held at love with a 128 MPH service winner out wide. The crowd roared in appreciation as Murray closed out that set. Murray approached this battle with a 7-11 record against Djokovic, but not once had he rescued himself from a set down in any of those duels. It was imperative for him to garner the opening set, and he had done just that.

But Djokovic gradually found his range in the second set. He raised the tempo entirely, got greater velocity on his shots, found better depth, and picked apart Murray ruthlessly. With Murray serving at 1-2, Djokovic began returning with an authority that had been sorely lacking until then. At 15-15, he made a delayed approach behind an inside-out forehand to set up a forehand volley winner crosscourt. Murray missed a backhand down the line for 15-40, and Djokovic then sliced a backhand crosscourt with no pace, drawing an inside-out forehand from Murray. The Serbian had built a 3-1 lead. In the fifth game, he served-and-volleyed at 30-30, depositing a forehand drop volley into the clear. He released a 125 MPH service winner wide to the Murray backhand to reach 4-1. He seemed well on his way to one set all.

Murray, however, had other notions. He held easily in the sixth game. At 4-2, Djokovic double faulted long, then missed off the forehand side for 0-30. Murray advanced to 15-40 but Djokovic collected three points in a row. He stood at game point for 5-2, and this was a crucial moment. Djokovic missed his first serve and kicked the second ball at 96 MPH into Murray’s backhand. Murray cracked that return crosscourt with no inhibition whatsoever for an outright winner. A spectacular running forehand crosscourt from Murray sent Djokovic sprawling onto the court with no play. Now break point down, Djokovic tamely double faulted into the net at 84 MPH. They were back on serve.

Murray was down break point at 3-4, with Djokovic poised to serve for the set if he could capitalize. But Murray produced a clutch ace out wide at 128 MPH, catching the edge of the line. Djokovic had one more break point but Murray took command and put away an easy overhead emphatically. He held on for 4-4. At 5-5, Djokovic found himself in another uncomfortable position, behind 15-40. He saved a break point but Murray was unwavering. He played a safe, high, sensible return down the middle off a 116 MPH first serve to the forehand, and Djokovic imploded, driving a forehand into the net. Serving for a two sets to love lead, Murray was calm and purposeful. He surged to 40-0 with ease and then aced Djokovic out wide at 125 MPH in the ad court.

It seemed entirely possible now that Murray would close out this account in commanding fashion. Both players had left the court after the conclusion of the set, and when they returned Djokovic was devoid of energy and intensity. Murray bolted to 2-0, 0-30 lead in the third set. Djokovic was unraveling. But the prideful Serbian knows not how to quit, and he pulled out that game on serve with an obstinate and impressive stand. After coaxing Murray into a running forehand error at 0-30, Djokovic uncorked a backhand down the line winner and a pair of forehand winners to hold on for 1-2. His fighting instincts had kicked in just in the nick of time.

With Murray serving at 2-1, 30-40, Djokovic chased down a drop shot and got it back as best he could, catching the British warrior off guard. Murray punched a backhand volley wide down the line. A revitalized Djokovic was back even at 2-2. Djokovic held for 3-2 at 15, employing a couple of fine drop shots off the backhand in the course of that game. He then broke Murray at 15 for 4-2. Djokovic had swept four games in a row, and now seemed ready to force a fourth set. But, once more, his game went awry at a critical juncture. At 4-2, 30-40, Murray pulled Djokovic out wide with a crosscourt forehand and then came in behind a forehand down the line of his own. Djokovic missed a backhand pass. Murray broke back for 3-4. At 40-30 for Murray in the next game, Djokovic played a respectable backhand drop shot down the line, but Murray was onto it, racing forward to play a dazzling forehand passing shot down the line. His shot clipped the baseline and brought the audience to its feet.

It was 4-4, 15-30. Djokovic punched a backhand volley down the line and probably thought he was in good shape, but Murray’s speed and athleticism were showcased brilliantly. He made a stupendous forehand passing shot winner down the line. Djokovic seemed mentally beaten, netting a routine forehand at 15-40. The Centre Crowd was delirious as Murray went to the changeover, knowing he would momentarily be serving for the match, hoping he could finish it off in style.

That seemed certain to happen. A 131 MPH service winner to the backhand lifted Murray to triple match point at 40-0. Then Djokovic almost cavalierly came up to the net, angled a volley crosscourt, and put away a forehand drop volley deftly. The Serbian followed with a scintillating backhand inside-in return winner and it was 40-30. Murray drove a backhand up the line that went long, and improbably it was deuce. Murray netted an inside-out forehand to give Djokovic a break point for 5-5, but the British player sent a first serve down the T at 116 MPH and Djokovic could not return it. Djokovic then produced a backhand half-volley drop shot off the net cord for a winner, earning a second break point. Murray once more took matters into his own hands, making a forehand winner off a short ball.

And yet, Djokovic pressed on, earning a third break point. Murray was bold again, advancing to the net behind an inside-out forehand approach to put away a forehand volley. At deuce, Djokovic hurt himself as he has so often with a tame overhead, allowing Murray back into a point that should have been over. And so it was match point for the fourth time. Murray sent a 130 MPH first serve wide to the backhand that left Djokovic totally compromised. Djokovic got it back but Murray easily coaxed an error on the next shot. He had won in straight sets, dismissing Djokovic 6-4, 7-5, 6-4, preventing the Serbian from collecting a seventh Grand Slam singles title. Djokovic did not serve well, and Murray returned magnificently. Djokovic connected with 65% of his first serves but won only 59% of those points, while Murray made 64% of his first deliveries, winning 72%. On second serve points, they were virtually even, with Djokovic winning 41% and Murray 42%. That was a departure from their normal routine. Djokovic has a significantly better second serve, but in this case he was below par and Murray protected his own second serve decidedly better than he usually does.

The statistics revealed more than that. Djokovic made 40 unforced errors while Murray was guilty of only 21. Murray produced 36 winners while Djokovic had 31. Across the board, Murray outplayed his rival. This was a top of the line Murray and a subpar Djokovic. The Serbian was trying to will his way to a triumph that wasn’t in the cards. Murray was the player destined to succeed. His time had come, and the victory was richly deserved.

Probably the best thing that happened to Murray was not playing the French Open. He took care of a back injury, went to Queen’s Club and won the grass court event there, and ultimately peaked for Wimbledon. He was not going to win Roland Garros, and staying away allowed him to heal his body, rest his mind and gather his thoughts, to head into Wimbledon in the right frame of mind, to give this Grand Slam tournament everything he had. Andy Murray has now captured the two biggest tournaments in tennis, and at 26 he will surely win at least two or three more majors over the next few seasons as he fully realizes his talent, raises his stature, and summons the best he has to offer.
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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.