NEW YORK – By the second set his hair had been so swirled and tufted by the wind it seemed like his skull was sprouting wings. First it seemed endearing, in a nutty professor kind of way, but then the lost games started piling up Monday night in Flushing Meadow and the gusts yanked the strands higher, and Andy Murray got this Thing 2 look going: Tennis pro drawn by Dr. Seuss. Now, in the fourth, with Novak Djokovic surging, up a break and about to make it 3-1, with Murray’s best chance at a Grand Slam title starting to slip away, the whole hairy mess was nearly standing on end. The man looked scared to death.
"He looked like he was thinking, Please send me the trophy. I'd like to leave now. I've proven I'm a better player," said seven-time Grand Slam champ Mats Wilander. "He was playing to just hang on, but that's something you don't know. How can you know when you have never done it? It's much easier when you're 18, 19 years old because you're not thinking: You're just going for it. But if Murray had lost here, he's looking at a window of maybe another year of pleasure -- and then you hate the sport."
The British press corps was, as they say, gobsmacked. It was happening again, as it had happened in his four previous Grand Slam finals: Murray, 25, was going down, and this would be the most horrible one yet. Because he had outsmarted and outhit Djokovic to take a two sets to none lead in the 2012 U.S. Open final; Murray had gotten the men and women who had been trailing, chronicling, obsessing about him -- I'm curious, Andy: Have you ever dreamed about Fred Perry? -- for nearly a decade to think it might actually occur. The end of 76 years of waiting. The chance to bury bloody Fred Perry once and for all.
But now all the tabloids and BBCs and Sky Sports and columnists who had flown in just for this, for the win, for the end of it, had no choice but to watch, pie-eyed. The Times of London couldn't speak. He was shaking his head -- Lord, no -- like someone forced to watch the climax of "Braveheart" for the fifth time.
But Murray hung on. They all hung on: His mother and first coach, Judy, Manchester United coach Alex Ferguson, Murray's flak, his girlfriend, most of Britain, all of Scotland and actor Sean Connery, too. And just when it seemed like it would be so hard, just when it seemed the gut-wrench would begin in earnest, it suddenly got very easy. Murray broke Djokovic to open the fifth set, ending it with a 20-stroke rally that had Djokovic, the most resilient force in the men's game, walking to his chair with a grin, a shake of the head, and as if to say, "Not my night."
It wasn't. By the end Murray proved the stronger player, the tougher man; by the end Djokovic was stretching and bending to keep the cramps from sizzling his thighs. Murray broke him again and then, on the same September day that Perry -- believe it or not -- won his first major title at Forest Hills in 1933, Murray won his first, a British man's first in 76 years, by beating Djokovic, 7-6 (10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2 before 23,771 newly naturalized Brits at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
"I was still doubting myself right up to a few minutes before you go on to play the match," Murray said after. "You're thinking, Are you going to be able to do this? The match against him always is going to hurt, as well; physically it's challenging. Yeah, it's something I have never done before. I have been in this position many times and not managed to get through. I am just so relieved to finally have got through and can put this one behind me -- and hopefully win more."
That's been the hope in tennis for years now: That Murray, with his feel, his wide array of shots, his dagger return, would finally break through and join the history-stalking ranks of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic, "The Big Three" with their combined 33 Grand Slam titles. After Murray hired eight-time Slam champion Ivan Lendl -- the only other man to lose his first four major finals -- in January, his game instantly felt tougher, more aggressive. An epic loss to Djokovic, 7-5 in the fifth set of their Australian Open semifinal, rippled into the summer of 2012 like a promise waiting to be kept.
"I don't know if I'm speaking from my heart or my head, but if there's anybody who deserves a Slam it's Andy -- because of the generation he's found himself in and because he still has put himself out there and created some incredible memories for us," said Andre Agassi the day before. "I'd love to see him get over the finish line. I think he's going to win a tight epic."
Indeed, Murray's fortnight turned out just as many expected -- no, wished -- after his tear-stained loss to Federer in the Wimbledon final, his breakthrough win at the London Olympics. And it was, really, the perfect end to the perfect year. How else to think of it? Djokovic came off one of the greatest seasons ever to raise play to an unprecedented level in his six-hour win over Nadal in the '12 Australian final. Then, as if in some cosmic payback, Nadal collected his seventh French Open title, followed by Federer's Wimbledon win and reclamation of the No. 1 ranking. Then, just as the leaves started to turn up North, tennis began edging toward a new era.
Winter coming. That's the charm of the U.S. Open, the only one, really. It's too big, too monied, too chest-beating a tournament these days for old-timers to recognize unless, near the end, they sniff the air. That's when you pick up the one link left with the days before the move to Ashe, back even to the decades played at Forest Hills. The tournament begins in summer and ends in fall, has change in its very DNA. By Monday the last of the rain and humidity had passed, replaced by a mean wind and, by the time Murray took the trophy in hand, temperatures in the 50s. The U.S. Open isn't like Wimbledon or the French. It readies you for the end of things.
So it was that, suddenly in New York, Nadal pulled out of the Open and off the tour for two months, knee trouble. Then Andy Roddick announced his retirement. Then Federer, at 31, lost in the quarterfinals to Tomas Berdych and what had been happening slowly atop the game began to happen faster, like the melting of a once-thick icecap. To have three men who had never won a major -- Murray, Berdych and David Ferrer -- advance to the Open semis is a significant turn, "sends a message: You, too, can do this," says former top five American Todd Martin. "And the more humans are given the opportunity to see light at the end of the tunnel, the more willing they are to go see what that light looks like."
Already, the idea that Djokovic and Murray may be the tour's next duopoly -- "the future guys who will rule tennis," as Marian Vajda, Djokovic's coach, puts it -- has begun to take hold. "I say it openly and I believe in it: This is the next future," Vajda says. "Because I don't see so many players coming in, recently. For ten years, the decade has been Federer-Nadal, and now is Novak and Murray. It will be more often this way. I respect Roger and Rafa and (Juan Martin) del Potro and all the guys in the top ten. But we see these guys at the end."
True, Murray's draw opened up in New York: He didn't have to beat Nadal or Federer or even No. 5 seed Jo-Wilfred Tsonga en route to the final. But his run was pocked by psychological landmines. His third-round matchup with Feliciano Lopez was the kind to make Freud shiver; Murray's mother had publicly labeled Lopez, "Deliciano", after all. Then Murray dispatched dangerous young gun Milos Raonic in the fourth round with an ease that was almost clinical; then he weathered Saturday's mental test of Berdych and the hideous winds.
If all that wasn't enough, Murray also carried with him 76 years of history, a nation's endless want, a pressure that no one seemed all that interested in easing. Just about every famous Scot poured into his post-match press conference after the Berdych win: Connery ("Judy, Judy, Judy!"), Ferguson ("Scotland invented the world: Today we invented the wind!") and Judy herself. ("He made me have wine....") You half expected Jackie Stewart, Fat Bastard, and a blue-and-white faced Mel Gibson to come barreling in next, flinging handfuls of haggis. But Murray only laughed.
"Yeah, winning a major is the last thing that I really want to do," he said after they had gone. "It means a lot to me. You saw at Wimbledon how much that meant to me. It's obviously not easy to lose another Slam final, so I hope this one is a different story."
It was. Djokovic came around the net to hug him, defeated this time. "I'm glad that he has won this trophy," he said. "I mean it." Murray wandered about for a while, seeming more stunned than exhilarated, but after walking off court toward the locker room, he passed through a hallway packed with people all but electrified. "It happened," said The Daily Mail, grinning, trying to convince himself. "It happened. In my lifetime."
Judy Murray was beaming, hoping to find a bite to eat. Connery, shaken and stirred, was backed up against a wall being interviewed by the BBC. His voice was nearly gone.
"I think it's great for Scotland, and I know how left-wing you all are at the BBC; everybody knows that," he said. "But this is really a great landslide victory. Stop saying he's British: He's Scottish. I've been fighting that for 40-odd years. You've got to get the press on the side of the people -- We The People. Did I say no? I said yes. I have to go now because the champion is waiting."
So the actor went, into the locker room to say congrats. Already, the narrative was being rewritten: Andy Murray, once a head case, once immature, now a champion. "One of the gutsiest wins in the history of Grand Slam tennis," Wilander said. "Now that he's done it? Now he's going to win five or six majors in his career. This changes it all."
Maybe. The fact that it sounded right, for one night anyway, was proof enough that this U.S. Open had done its job -- heat, rain, wind and all. Change is good.