NEW YORK—It felt like Andy Murray’s kind of night at Flushing Meadows on Monday. That’s because what you could feel all over Arthur Ashe Stadium was wind—wind swirling in various directions and making the giant flag at the top of the stadium ripple and snap. Murray had played a masterful semifinal against Tomas Berdych in even gustier conditions on Friday. In both matches, the ball danced and knuckled in the air, making aggressive play risky. Which suited Murray just fine, because he could do what comes naturally—slice, dice, hang back, return every serve, run everything down, throw up irritating lobs, let the other guy fight through the breeze and attack, and generally act the part of a tennis pest extraordinaire.
It helped, in a way, that the other guy tonight was Novak Djokovic. The Serb is not a wind lover, and he was lunging and lurching for balls right from the start. Djokovic, unsure of himself and where he would make contact with the ball, went to his safer slice more often than normal, and played tentatively through much of the first set. But in a precursor to what would come later, Djokovic settled himself in time to come back from a break down and force a first-set tiebreaker. And an epic breaker it was, the longest in any Open men’s final. Both players grew tentative as it went on. Djokovic sliced away carefully, while Murray tensed up when he had the lead. As the points mounted, the tiebreaker took on more weight. Murray, after misfiring on five set points, finally grabbed the reins and came up with a couple of big serves and forehands to close it out.
It would prove, in a roundabout way, to be as crucial as it appeared to be at the time. Djokovic, disappointed, went away mentally in the first four games of the second set. He smiled and shook his head at the conditions, and looked ready to throw the set away. Djokovic had similar streaks of negativity at the Australian Open earlier this year, but they hadn’t ended up costing him. This one did. Despite a furious rally, he lost that set 7-5. And despite a furious rally in the next two sets, he never caught up. In the end, the two players were fairly even when it came to winners, errors, aces, first-serve percentage, and break points converted. One stat does stick out: Murray got 82 percent of his returns in play. He didn’t give Djokovic anything for free.
Still, Djokovic fought, through the wind, his own frustration, Murray’s defenses, and a crowd that was in the underdog Scot’s corner. By the fourth set, the match had the look of a classic, as the two staged a corner to corner baseline war of attrition. With the wind dying down, it was Djokovic’s turn to play impenetrable defense, and Murray’s turn to vent. “Jelly!” he screamed at his legs. The tension of trying to become the first British man to win a Grand Slam since 1936, it seemed, was making Muzz go a little wobbly, in body and brain.
But this was a different Andy Murray than the one who earned just a single set in his previous three Grand Slam finals. His Olympic win had proven that he could close out a match of this magnitude. He stopped the rot by breaking Djokovic to start the fifth, and consolidated in the next game with a 131 m.p.h. service winner and some of his most dazzling defense of the night. The legs, it seemed, had firmed up again.
Murray may have wanted to win his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon, but it’s hard to imagine that he would have been given any more, or any more full-throated, support than he did from the New Yorkers in Ashe Stadium tonight. Murray seemed to soar through the final games, as the audience stood and fist-pumped his every winning point. Before the final game, as an ailing Djokovic took a medical time-out and Murray waited at the baseline to serve, the audience stood and danced around him. When he reached match point, Murray turned to watch as 20,000 (mostly) Americans stood again and roared for British history to be made. After four hours and 54 minutes, and many miles of running, it was 7-6 (10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2.
When it was over, Murray, as he had at the Olympics, bent down, put his hand on his head, and then walked slowly to the net. He had put on a brilliant show for the Broadway crowd, but he celebrated this first British men’s Slam of the Open era with a fitting reserve. Cheers, Andy—New York gave you as many as we could.