Their man didn't win, but they know him much better now. It took a heartbreaking defeat and the flow of tears to bring Andy Murray closer to the British public than ever before. In time, those just might be the memories that last.
Roger Federer had been characteristically brilliant Sunday in his 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 victory in the Wimbledon men's final. He was portrayed as a most unwelcome guest, and that might have been an appropriate storyline elsewhere: the fabled champion taking on the hometown favorite. But not at Wimbledon. Not where Federer turned thousands of sports-minded people into tennis fans.
"You're the reason we love it!" someone shouted at Federer during the match, and through the torrent of annoying cries breaking the silence between points, that one rang true. Federer is known as the best-ever player as much for his grace and artistry than the staggering numbers he has assembled, and nowhere is that more appreciated than at the All England Club.
It's not that the Centre Court patrons favored Federer in any way, it's just that they could not conceal their admiration. His most spectacular shots drew hearty applause, deserving nothing less. And because he never quite allowed Murray into the match -- especially after the roof was closed between the second and third sets -- the fans never mustered a serious brand of pro-Murray hysteria.
The numbers speak of dominance and longevity: 7, for Federer's tie with Pete Sampras for the most Wimbledon singles titles; 17, Federer's record number of major championships, and 1, for the world ranking he has now reclaimed. As Murray said after the match, "I just lost to one of the greatest athletes of all time. You have to put things in context a little bit."
Murray was composed and characteristically laconic in the interview room, a far cry from the man we saw in the immediate aftermath. As the BBC's Sue Barker approached him on court with a few kind words, his first reaction was, "I'm getting closer."
Pretty good line. But he wasn't in the mood for wisecracks. He looked to the sky for a moment, then took the microphone out of Barker's hands.
"All right, this is not gonna be easy," he told the crowd, and then he broke down, unable to continue. The applause was thunderous.
"I'm gonna start crying again," he said as he thanked all the family and friends in his box.
"And last of all, to you guys," said Murray, his voice quavering again. "People talk about the pressure of playing Wimbledon, but the people watching make it so much easier to play. The support's been great, so..."
That's all he needed to say. It seemed he didn't quite know where to go after that speech, so he went right over to Federer and gave him a hug. There were dry eyes in the house, but a few moist ones, as well.
"I'd be playing the wrong sport if I wasn't emotional," he said later. "I just told Roger I was sorry, I didn't want that to happen. You feel like you're attention-seeking or something, and it wasn't like that at all. He just laughed and said, 'This is supposed to be the easy part.' But sometimes (the ceremony) does feel quite hard, compared to playing a tennis match."
This long-awaited spectacle began outdoors, with only a trace of wind, and much of it unfolded in glorious sunshine. What a splendid development after two weeks of rain, exasperation and indoor tennis: vintage Wimbledon conditions. Murray broke serve in the very first game, broke again for a 5-4 lead, then closed out the first set -- the first he's ever won at the Grand Slam level -- with a booming first serve that Federer couldn't handle.
It was exactly what the British public wanted to see, but they were about to witness the very best of Federer. Both players held through the first 11 games of the second set, but at 30-all on Murray's serve, Federer produced a masterful forehand drop volley winner, a truly exquisite bit of touch. Then, at set point, he answered a massive Murray backhand with a similar bit of drop-volley magic with the backhand. Who dares take such a bold approach at a crucial stage? Such is the beauty of Federer, and that's when people began to realize that Murray was confronting a higher power on the other side of the net.
At 1-1 in the third set, the rains came: first a slight drizzle, then a downpour. That's vintage Wimbledon, as well, regrettably. As the pundits sought shelter in the press room, the general feeling was that Federer would now take charge. For the very purest strikers of the ball, there is nothing more heavenly than a set of conditions without flaw.
"I don't think he's lost an indoor match since 2010, so he plays well under the roof," said Murray. "He came out of the break more aggressive on my serve. And I think because he has such excellent timing, when there's no wind or anything, he times the ball very, very well. When the roof closed, he just played unbelievable tennis."
With Federer holding a 3-2 lead in the third set, Murray tried desperately to hold. A 10-deuce game raged on for 20 minutes, several chances blown each way. Finally, Federer unleashed an inside-out forehand that Murray could only stab with the backhand. That set ended with a Federer ace flying past Murray's backhand, and a sense of reverence filled the historic arena. Murray was their man, but Federer was their god.
Murray's body language began to sag as the final set unfolded. He was hanging his head in dejection as his searing forehand pass, with the look of a winner, sailed long in the sixth game. A bit later, after Murray's forehand winner ignited one of the few full-throated roars from the crowd, Federer drilled an ace. Silence resumed.
It wasn't until the very end, Federer about to serve out the match, that the fans tried to will Murray back into the match. They put together a little "An-dy!" chant, with rhythmic applause, but it lacked a bit of punch. It was all far too late for Murray, and with Federer serving at 40-30, the match ended with Murray drilled a cross-court forehand wide.
There have been times in the past when Federer was a bit resentful of Murray, feeling perhaps he'd never be worthy of the big stage, but that all changed Sunday. "I think he's done so well, to be quite honest," Federer said. "I really do believe, deep down in me, that he will win Grand Slams -- not just one. This is genuine. He's as professional as he can be. Things just didn't quite turn out for him, but I believe and hope for him that he's going to win one soon."
For Murray, the iconoclastic Scotsman, this was the day he won unconditional love -- as a man, as well as a tennis player. By any measure, that counts as a triumph.