July 7, 2013 7:57 pm
Perhaps the most infamous losing run in world sport finally came to an end on Sunday, when Andy Murray reclaimed the London suburb of Wimbledon for British men’s tennis for the first time since 1936 and Fred Perry, who played in long trousers. Of those 77 years, the last 10 minutes were the most agonising.
Murray won the Wimbledon final against the world No. 1, Novak Djokovic of Serbia, in straight sets, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4, which is a misleading encapsulation of a match of terrifying intensity played in unBritish heat. Each set took an hour or more, and Murray looked as though he had run a marathon before the end of the first.
This was not strawberries-and-cream tennis; it was like a staring match, taking place amid an atmosphere of expectation that was both electrifying and intimidating. And it was Djokovic who blinked.
A year ago, when Murray reached the final – thus ending a 74-year sequence – and lost to Roger Federer, he was perhaps subconsciously content just to be there. This time, second place was never going to be good enough, and he had the physical and mental strength to ensure it didn’t have to be.
The drama just built and built, culminating in the final game when Murray raced to three match points and lost the lot. Back and forth it went, the crowd doing its best to overrule the line judges. Three times Djokovic got to break point and Britain reverted to its usual state of self-doubt. A deep abyss beckoned from here.
But Murray did a sensational retrieval job to get a fourth match point. And then the job was done. He later described the last game as “the toughest I’ll play in my career, ever”. But the delight came first, and then the tears. Even his stone-faced coach, Ivan Lendl – who never did win Wimbledon – cracked a smile, though not for long.
In the Royal Box, a battle for Murray’s soul broke out with Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister, raising the Saltire, the Scottish flag, just behind David Cameron’s head: a small gesture in advance of next year’s independence referendum. Murray would not have noticed or cared. He went straight to the balcony to give a Churchillian wave to the crowds. To come: BBC Sports Personality of the Year, being cast in bronze close to Centre Court, the knighthood, the secular canonisation.
No one was more aware of the failings in fitness, technique and temperament of the young Murray than the laddie himself. But he worked ferociously hard to overcome them. There might be a dozen or more players in this tournament with more natural tennis gifts; no one, not even in the end Djokovic, could surpass his implacable determination.
“It was tortuous to watch,” Sue Barker of the BBC said to him in the immediate aftermath of victory. “Imagine how it was playing it,” Murray said.
From the start, the spectators in the sun-drenched seats were fanning themselves, their hands fluttering like a host of butterflies. Nervily, the players traded breaks of serve in the opening set, but Murray seized the initiative and clung on: the first British man to go a set up in a Wimbledon final since . . . he did it himself against Federer a year ago.
And once again the fall looked possible. Djokovic raced to a 4-1 lead in the second. But then he went walkabout. He had frittered away his allocation of three line-call challenges in the set, and could resort only to old-fashioned temper when he really felt strongly. Suddenly it was as though the trench warfare had ceased and the enemy had run away: Murray won seven of the next eight games and got within two points of a second break and a 3-0 lead in the third. The road to victory lay straight ahead.
Djokovic now made two strategic decisions. One was to dare the hot British sun to do its worst; he took his cap off. The other was to stop trading endless baseline punches with Murray, and start rushing the net and going for dropshots. It was probably less tiring that way. It was certainly effective. 0-2 became 4-2 to Djokovic, But back stormed Murray.
British? Scottish? Last night no one except the politicians cared. Andy Murray had won a permanent place in the heart of the entire nation, and in the annals of his sport.
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