Commentary

No more baggage for Andy Murray

Updated: September 11, 2012, 9:08 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- For four years now, the world has waited for Andy Murray to fulfill his massive, sometimes unwieldy promise. That universe would include the entirety of the British Isles and, of course, Murray himself.

It was understandable, though, when the awkward 19-year-old lost the final of the 2008 U.S. Open in straight sets to Roger Federer. Two years later, when it happened again in the Australian Open, no excuses were necessary. Even a straight-sets loss to Novak Djokovic the following year in Melbourne made a certain kind of sense, for Djokovic was embarking on the season of his life.

But when -- or, as the years have passed, was the word if? -- would Murray finally catch fire and take his place at the top of the game? His fourth Grand Slam singles final, a four-set loss to Federer at Wimbledon, would not provide that answer. His on-court tears were a window to how badly he wanted it.

But later that same month, Murray seemed to find something within himself. In a word, confidence. A belief that he could win against the very best players on the ATP World Tour and, it can be argued, some of the finest of all time. He took home the gold medal at the All England Club and, watching him dismantle Federer, you couldn't help but wonder if this new feeling could carry him to an unprecedented place.

Why, yes, it did.

On Monday night, Murray summoned the strength to beat Djokovic in a staggering U.S. Open match, 7-6 (10) 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2.

Time, please: 4 hours, 54 minutes, which ties the record for the longest-ever final here.

It was the first time in 24 years that both the men's and women's finals here went the distance.

[+] EnlargeAndy Murray
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesWith a gold medal and now a U.S. Open crown, can we call Andy Murray the player of the year?

"I cried a little bit on the court," Murray said. "You're not sad; you're incredibly happy. You're in a little bit of disbelief because when I have been in that position many times before and not won, you do think, is it ever going to happen? Then when it finally does, you just yeah, you're obviously very, very excited."

In retrospect, Murray's legacy will be greater because he was forced to win this one in five. Djokovic had won his past eight five-set matches. In the fifth set, it was actually surprising to see Djokovic's legs starting to cramp and when the trainer visited him before the last game to treat a groin injury he sagged in the changeover chair. Murray, amazingly, looked reasonably fresh and won the final set with ease.

Now, Murray can go forward without the terrible personal baggage of never winning a Grand Slam. And don't discount the pressure that has always followed him at home. Murray is the first British man to win a major since Fred Perry did it -- on the same day, Sept. 10 -- 76 years ago.

"When you're on the court, you don't necessarily feel it," Murray said, "but I know when I was serving for the match, there's a sense of how big a moment that is in British tennis history really.

"So, yeah, it's great to have finally done it, and I said in one of the interviews after the match, I hope now, it inspires some kids to play tennis and also takes away the notion that British tennis players choke or don't win or it's not a good sport."

You can bury that ghost.

"He deserved to win this Grand Slam more than anybody, I'm sure, because over the years he's been a top player," Djokovic said. "He's been so close; lost four finals. Now he has won it, so I would like to congratulate him.

"Definitely, you know, happy that he won it."

During the last few games, the dean of British tennis writers, Neil Harman, paced back and forth in the media center, rubbing his hands, grimacing. When the moment came, he was on deadline, typing furiously. He stopped and began applauding.

"What a lad," Harman said.

One of the chief reasons it happened was Murray's coach, Ivan Lendl, who helped instill that belief by encouraging more aggressive shots. It was especially poignant, because Lendl, too, lost his first four Grand Slam finals before winning eight of his remaining 15 opportunities in a championship final.

When Mary Carillo of CBS acknowledged Lendl's contribution, there was a tremor across his stone face.

"I think that might have been a smile," cracked Murray.

In another sweet piece of symmetry, it was Lendl who had played the other longest match here, losing to Mats Wilander in the 1988 final.

"The goal," Lendl said, "was to have Andy win majors. He had two fantastic tournaments this year and I'm very happy for him.

"We all know it's a war out there. You know at some point it's going to come down to how badly do you want it, what price are you willing to pay and who can execute under extreme pressure."

He sounded like a proud father.

Murray and Juan Martin del Potro are the only two men to break the monopoly created by Federer, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, who have won 29 of the past 31 majors.

And, you can make the argument that Murray -- after reaching the Wimbledon final, then winning the Olympics and U.S. Open -- is the men's player of the year.

This Open is, by a wide consensus, the toughest of the four majors. The back-loaded schedule is brutal, especially for the men, and the conditions are, well, all you need to know is that a tornado warning suspended play on Saturday.

The match in question was Djokovic versus David Ferrer, and the wind clearly unnerved Djokovic, who was trailing 5-2 when they shut it down. Murray, on the other hand, often practices in the Miami breeze and seems more comfortable in the unpredictable gusts. Before the match, Murray practiced on Ashe on both sides of the court; Djokovic chose to warm up on an outside practice court.

Perhaps as a result, Djokovic lost the first seven points on his serve.

The unsettled weather gave Murray another advantage, too. Although he spent more than five hours on the court in his run to the final, Djokovic's suspension pushed the men's final to Monday, giving him an extra day of rest, presumably leveling the field in terms of energy reserves.

"I mean, obviously not everyone in here sees all of the stuff that goes on away from the court in terms of the training that you do and I guess the physical sort of suffering, the stuff you put your body through on a weekly basis to try and prepare for these moments so you can play for four and a half hours at a high intensity," Murray said.

"And when you have been there many times and not done it, it is easy to doubt yourself."

On this day, anyway, it wasn't an advantage to have the wind at your back. In fact, the first five games were all won by the player hitting into the wind. Murray snuck off to a 4-2 lead, but Djokovic made the necessary adjustments -- hitting flatter into the wind, slicing more on the other side, letting the wind take the ball deep -- and forced a first-set tiebreaker.

It was a spectacular extra session, a movie within a movie, featuring (among many other things) an astonishing 30-stroke rally, two bloody knees when Djokovic took a tumble and a rich, well-delivered F-bomb from Murray.

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
AP Photo/Charles KrupaAt 4 hours, 54 minutes, this match tied the record for the longest Grand Slam final at the U.S. Open.

Of course, it was 6-all after the first dozen points, then 9-all. Djokovic fought off five set points but not the sixth. A big serve from Murray down the middle forced Djokovic to stretch for a forehand, which sailed long.

The first set ran 87 minutes and both players knew what was at stake, even if they might not have known the statistic: The last 13 times they have played, the man who won the first set won the match.

The hangover came quickly. Djokovic, falling down on several occasions, was broken at love and Murray was off to a second-set lead that would swell to 4-0. Somehow, Djokovic rallied. Serving for a two-set lead at 5-3, Murray made three errors, the last a badly shanked forehand that was long.

But just when it looked like there would be another tiebreaker, Djokovic's game -- perhaps worn down from the fight to come back -- got a little loose. On the last shot of a 30-stroke rally, he sent a forehand screaming long, then hastily struck an overhead from the service line, which sailed wide. After saving a break point, Djokovic put too much on another forehand and, for the first time, Murray had won two sets in a major final.

Djokovic rallied famously to force a fifth set.

You know what happened next.

These two combatants were born seven days apart in May 1987. They have been exchanging shots since they were 12-year-old juniors, sharing practice courts and some laughs as they climbed to the higher reaches of professional tennis.

Although Djokovic is far more accomplished when it comes to important titles, their matches always have been competitive. Djokovic won their only two previous meetings in majors, but Murray beat him at the Olympics. They have both described their dynamic as tilting on the thinnest of margins.

"I have always said that playing against these guys makes you much better," Murray said.

"Yeah, I'm very happy to be part of this era in tennis. I think everyone probably in here would agree it's one of the best ever. I think playing against them has made me improve so much. I always said that maybe if I played another era maybe I would have won more, but I wouldn't have been as good a tennis player.

I think that's how you should be judged at the end of your career, not just on how much you're winning but on the people you're competing against and how good a player you actually were."

Perhaps this is the new paradigm.

When Federer was knocked out in the quarterfinals by Tomas Berdych, it was the first time in more than eight years that either Federer or Nadal failed to reach a major semifinal.

These two, still in their prime at 25, will play more major finals.

Nine months ago, Djokovic beat Murray 7-5 in the fifth set of a semifinal match in Australia that was clocked at 4 hours, 50 minutes. Less than 48 hours later, he vanquished Nadal by the same fifth-set margin in the longest Grand Slam final ever -- a breathtaking (literally) 5 hours, 53 minutes.

And now this.

Is it January yet?

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.