Murray battles through on longest day

The climax of the 2013 Wimbledon that everyone has expected since the early days of the tournament came to pass on Friday night: Britain’s Andy Murray and the world number one from Serbia, Novak Djokovic, will meet in the men’s final on Sunday.

Everything else about the day almost beggared belief.

Djokovic endured the longest semi-final in Wimbledon history – four hours 43 minutes – before he subdued Juan Martin del Potro. By the time Murray came on to Centre Court, the stage was already in shadow. And everything almost went black for him too.

A week ago, no one outside Poland, barring tennis obsessives, would have been able to distinguish between Jerzy Janowicz and a Jersey cow. Well, we know now. He is 6ft 8in, has a serve that flirts with 150mph, and comes down on unsuspecting opponents like the defender of a medieval castle hurling boiling oil on the riotous peasantry below. His ball-toss is a hazard to passing aircraft. What’s more, he is agile, skilful and original, capable of switching to some of the tiddlyest dinks in the business.

He is also 22, and has emerged as potentially the best of the young hustlers. For Murray, now 26, this match was like staring at his own mortality. If he could not beat Janowicz now, what might happen a year or two hence? No British male has won Wimbledon since Edward VIII was on the throne. If Murray’s window of opportunity shuts, the next champ may have to wait until William V.

Janowicz took the first set on a tie-break. Murray broke serve at the start of the second and clung on. Then he fell 4-1 behind in the third. He is a man whose temperament is often considered suspect. In fact, he has acquired great reserves of mental as well as physical strength. He is not the most gifted player in tennis, but he is the most bloody-minded.

He stormed back by winning the next five games, partly thanks to sensational shotmaking, partly because Janowicz’s double-faults started to outnumber the aces, and petulance crept in.

By now the long day was starting to fade, and darkness was falling. At least it seemed to be if you were Polish, or the tournament referee, who marched on with Murray two sets to one up to announce that the game would be suspended and resume under the Centre Court roof. But for anyone who grew up in Perthshire, where nights in July hardly exist and a keen young lad might play till midnight, this was absurd. And Murray argued his case furiously, though unrealistically: it was not getting any lighter.

The break might have cost him momentum. But he is too smart for that now: he won the fourth set 6-3, and eight hours 37 minutes after the Centre Court day began, without a single pause for rain, the crowd finally filed out, as drained as the players.

Djokovic described his match against the Argentine del Potro as “one of the best I have played in”. But though it was both interminable and at times exhilarating, there was always a sense that the favourite would prevail – and that both men knew it. Del Potro fell over at the start of his quarter-final on Wednesday and looked likely to limp out of the tournament. He marched off with his head held high.

He may have done Murray a great favour by knackering his opponent. Djokovic will start favourite, but since last year Murray has acquired a grand slam win – against Djokovic in last year’s US Open final. He can win, and he will never have a better chance. Because soon the kids will be coming.

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