Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Murray's New York slam dunk

On September 10th 1933, Fred Perry claimed the first of his eight Grand Slam titles. The world number three overcame Jack Crawford, ranked number two, in five sensational sets of tennis. Everyone was stunned; the Australian Open champion of that year who was gunning for his sixth major title and regarded as one of the greatest players ever, was beaten. Fast-forward 79 years and you would be forgiven for thinking history was repeating itself.

Last night, the ghost of Fred was finally laid to rest as Andy Murray overcame Novak Djokovic 7-6, (12-10) 7-5, 2-6 3-6 6-2, a match which lasted almost five hours, and undoubtedly one of the great modern finals. The Scot averted the ignominy of losing one’s first five Grand Slams finals in the Open era to cap the finest year in British sport, from Sergio Aguero’s last minute strike for Manchester City, through to Bradley Wiggins’ Tour de France victory and the quite sensational Olympics and Paralympics.

Andy Murray kisses the US Open trophy, and kisses goodbye
to years of Grand Slam woe
Many thought the day would never come as Murray seemingly had the misfortune of crossing lines with arguably the greatest generation of tennis players. The unprecedented imperiousness of the Federer, Nadal and Djokovic triumvirate were like members of an exclusive club, taunting Murray with their membership cards and blocking his path to the sport’s ultimate prize. Despite his talent, Murray was seemingly destined to be left with an unfinished career.

The Olympic final match has been mentioned so much in terms of Murray’s development, and its importance cannot be understated. The manner in which he defeated Federer in a best-of-five set match after the heartbreak of Wimbledon led to coach Ivan Lendl, when asked at a press conference if Murray would ever win a Grand Slam, replying “He already has one”. We always knew he had the ability, but the stuff between the ears was holding him back. For instance, if you took away Djokovic’s five Grand Slams, their head-to-head was six apiece, with Murray leading 26-23 in titles. In many cases, it boils down to a few points here and there, and which man truly believes they can succeed.

But Murray’s road to this US Open final had been far from academic. After suffering early defeats in the Cincinnati and Toronto Masters, the Scot produced uncertain performances in the early rounds, before confidently dispatching the much-hyped Milos Raonic in round four. Hearts were in mouths as he went a set and a double break down to Marin Cilic before mounting a memorable comeback, after which a nervy four-set win over Berdych sealed his progress to the bitter end. Some will point out not he did not face either Nadal or Federer, both absent from semi-finals of a Grand Slam for the first time since 2004, but this in no way detracts from the scale of his achievement.

It was easy to see why many tipped Djokovic. He was on a remarkable 27-match unbeaten run at hard court Grand Slams, stretching back to the US Open of 2010. He had swept past his opponents with consummate ease, including a straight-sets victory over Juan Martin Del Potro. And he also beat Murray in their last Grand Slam encounter, an equally-epic contest in the Australian Open semis. That day, Murray was also a set away from glory but failed to deliver the killer blow. Not this time.

The first set was a tense affair with breaks being traded twice each, exemplified by an incredible 54-stroke rally in game five. Few believed this would go down as a classic until we witnessed that gripping tie break. Murray came from 5-3 down to put Djokovic on the ropes, squandering six set points against the Serb’s incredible defences before eventually claiming the set. It was a microcosm of Murray’s career; denied on so many occasions but finally engineering the breakthrough.

Then the form which won him an Olympic gold medal flowed early in the second set, despite a great comeback from Djokovic at 4-0 down. The inside-out forehand had more weight to it as well as the cross-court backhand, but such hitting completely deserted him in the third set. The fourth was arguably the most entertaining in terms of quality with so many unbelievable rallies, but Murray was always playing catch-up. Almost inevitably, we entered the tennis equivalent of a penalty shootout.

It seemed as though Djokovic was about to emulate Richard Gonzales’ feat 63 years ago, when he came from two sets down to beat Frederick Schroeder in five. But out of nowhere, Djokovic was broken twice, struggling both physically and mentally. All of a sudden, it was he who had legs like jelly and, towards the end of this gladiatorial carnage, he sounded like a wounded animal gasping for survival. Murray was composed throughout and, for once, used his challenges wisely to correct two marginal decisions when serving for the championship, shrugging off the pain of losing a toe nail and ending the agony of a nation. The impact on British tennis and the potential to inspire a generation could prove to be priceless.

Ivan Lendl was 24 when he won the first of his eight Grand Slams, and so, at 25, Murray has plenty of time to win more Slams. The remaining highlights of the year include the Shanghai and Paris Masters, both in October, followed by the ATP World Tour Finals at the O2 in November. For now, though, Murray deserves a good break to recharge depleted batteries before preparing himself to enter the 2013 ring. It is certainly a mouth-watering prospect with Nadal returning from injury, Del Potro getting closer to his 2009 peak, Federer still going strong and a hungry Andy Murray finally finally being unshackled by the game’s greats.

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