Just grand

By Howard Fendrich
Associated Press / September 11, 2012
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NEW YORK — His considerable lead, and a chance at history, slipping away, Andy Murray dug deep for stamina and mental strength, outlasting Novak Djokovic in a thrilling five-set US Open final Monday.

It had been 76 years since a British man won a Grand Slam singles championship and, at least as far as Murray was concerned, it was well worth the wait.

Ending a nation’s long drought, and snapping his own four-final skid in majors, Murray finally pulled through with everything at stake on a Grand Slam stage, shrugging off defending champion Djokovic’s comeback bid to win, 7-6 (12-10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2.

‘‘Relief is probably the best word I would use to describe how I'm feeling just now,’’ Murray said, adding: ‘‘You do think: Is it ever going to happen?’’

Yes, Murray already showed he could come up big by winning the gold medal in front of a home crowd at the London Olympics last month. But this was different. This was a Grand Slam tournament, the standard universally used to measure tennis greatness — and the 287th since Britain’s Fred Perry won the 1936 US Championships, as the event was known back then.

‘‘He deserved to win this Grand Slam more than anybody,’’ Djokovic said of Murray, who will rise to No. 3 in the rankings behind No. 1 Roger Federer and No. 2 Djokovic.

Murray vs. Djokovic was a test of will as much as skill, lasting 4 hours 54 minutes, tying the record for longest US Open final. The first-set tiebreaker’s 22 points set a tournament mark. They repeatedly produced fantastic, tales-in-themselves points, lasting 10, 20, 30, even 55 — yes, 55! — strokes, counting the serve. The crowd gave a standing ovation to salute one majestic, 30-stroke point in the fourth set that ended with Murray’s forehand winner as Djokovic fell to the court, slamming on his left side.

By the end, Djokovic — who had won eight consecutive five-set matches, including in the semifinals (against Murray) and final (against Rafael Nadal) at the Australian Open in January — was the one looking fragile, trying to catch breathers and doing deep knee bends at the baseline to stretch his aching groin muscles. After getting broken to trail, 5-2, in the fifth, Djokovic had his legs massaged by a trainer.

‘‘I really tried my best,’’ Djokovic said.

No one had blown a two-set lead in the US Open title match since 1949, and Murray was determined not to claim that distinction.

When Djokovic sent a forehand long on the final point, Murray crouched and covered his mouth with both hands, as though even he could not believe this moment had actually arrived. The 25-year-old Scot removed his sneakers, grimacing with each step as he gingerly stepped across the court. Djokovic came around to offer congratulations and a warm embrace, while ‘‘Chariots of Fire’’ blared over the Arthur Ashe Stadium loudspeakers.

Murray was one of only two men in the professional era, which began in 1968, to have lost his first four Grand Slam finals — against Djokovic in the 2011 Australian Open, and against Roger Federer at the 2008 US Open, 2010 Australian Open, and 2012 Wimbledon. The other guy? Ivan Lendl, who is Murray’s coach.

The lack of a Grand Slam title for Murray, and for his country, had been the subject of much conversation and consternation in the United Kingdom, where the first of what would become tennis’ top titles was at awarded at Wimbledon in 1877.

Djokovic, in contrast, was bidding for his sixth major trophy and fifth in the past two seasons. He had won 27 Grand Slam hard-court matches in a row.

There were 10 points of at least 10 strokes each in the first-set tiebreaker, which lasted 25 minutes. Djokovic saved each of Murray’s initial five set points, the last with a 123-mile-per-hour ace to make it 10-all. But Djokovic’s backhand flew long at the end of a 21-shot exchange to cede set point No. 6, and this time Murray converted, hitting a 117-m.p.h. serve that Djokovic couldn’t put in the court.

Murray turned toward his guest box and bellowed, ‘‘Come on!’’

After seizing that epic first set, Murray raced to a 4-0 lead in the second.

But Djokovic is nothing if not tenacious, and he would not go quietly. Raising his level of play as Murray took a step or two backward, Djokovic broke for 4-1 and then again when Murray served for a two-set lead at 5-3. That’s when Murray made three unforced errors, truly showing some jitters, as though the prospect of such prosperity was a tad overwhelming.

When Djokovic held to 5-all, it seemed as though the second set might head to a tiebreaker, too.

But with Djokovic serving while trailing, 6-5, he was the one who faltered. On a 31-stroke point, Djokovic missed a forehand to make it 15-30. Then Murray’s defensive skills came into play, as he got one overhead back and forced Djokovic to hit a second, which sailed wide. Chest heaving, Djokovic put his hands on his hips, having a hard time understanding what was happening. Two points later, Djokovic pushed an inside-out forehand wide, giving Murray that set.

After stretching for a backhand volley winner to hold at 1-1 in the third, Djokovic let out a guttural yell and pumped his fists. Djokovic kept up his better-late-than-never charge. He broke for a 2-1 lead, turning on a 126-m.p.h. serve with a terrific return. Soon enough, they were headed to a fourth set.

Djokovic held onto the momentum there. He secured a break point by tapping the ball over the net with the lightest caress. Seconds later a volley winner put Djokovic ahead, 1-0.

The sun was setting, the match was approaching 3½ hours, and it was apparent that Murray was now tentative. Djokovic held to go ahead, 3-1, and eventually forced the fifth set.

Murray broke twice in the fifth to go ahead, 3-0. He was on his way.

‘‘I think everybody’s in kind of shock that this happened,’’ Murray said.

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