Wimbledon title ends torturous wait for Murray, Great Britain

Monday July 8th, 2013

In beating Novak Djokovic Sunday, Andy Murray became the first Brit in 77 years to win Wimbledon.
Anja Niedringhaus - Pool//Getty Images

WIMBLEDON, England -- When it ended, the boy didn't turn first to his loving mother. The player didn't turn to his demanding coach. The lad didn't turn to his long-suffering girlfriend, the endorser didn't turn to the suits that handle his money, the patriot didn't turn to the fans waving flags. That would all come, but not yet. Because this moment didn't concern all those other roles and relations in Andy Murray's life. No, this was about years of slow torture, and about making sure that the tools of that torture understand.

Yes: It's over. Murray beat world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 Sunday to become the first British man in 77 years to win the Wimbledon singles championship. And once Djokovic's final backhand plumped into the net, once the 26-year-old Scot knew that the ghost of Fred Perry was well and surely dead, Murray dropped his racket, flung his hat, and ran not to his family box but to the corner of Centre Court just below the press section. He stared up. He pumped his fists at the pens and keyboards and notebooks, and his face broke into a snarly mask of look-at-me joy.

"Yeah, that was just what my eyes were kind of fixed on," Murray said later. "I was staring in the direction of quite a few guys in the press. Yeah, there's a subconscious part of me. Obviously I've had a difficult relationship at times; the last few years have been much better. I mean, I know for you guys it's important that I win this tournament. You know, I tried. Obviously I tried my best. I worked as hard as I could to do it."

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Understand: Murray was not declaring payback. His life with the British press has never played out like the Athlete vs. Media dynamic seen in America; as he says, the British press were his prime cheerleaders. And there's the rub. Once Murray broke out in 2005 as their next great hope, the tabs and the broadsheets only served as the bright exposed nerve-end of a deep national need. He's been a one-man sport ever since, covered daily by dozens, subjected to a drip-drip of questions and critiques and insinuations and stories that, no matter what time of year and no matter which continent he played, always led back to SW 19. It wasn't really the faces that he showed his fists on Sunday. It was that need.

"The last four or five years, it's been very tough, very stressful, a lot of pressure," Murray said. "The few days before the tournament, really difficult as well. Because it's just kind of everywhere you go. It's so hard to avoid everything because of how big this event is, but also because of the history and no Brit having won. It's been very, very difficult."

Indeed, for years many believed that the British obsession with ending the Perry drought served as a second opponent for an already second-rate crop of talent. It somehow wasn't enough that Virginia Wade won Wimbledon in 1977: Only a man would do, and names like John Lloyd, Chris Wilkinson and Tim Henman all gave under the pressure. "That was my dream growing up: To try and win this tournament," says Mark Petchey, Murray's first pro coach, who never got farther than a 1997 run into the third round here. "As a British tennis player that's always going to be your thing. I wasn't good enough."

Murray, though, was thought good enough, and aside from his touch, movement and killer backhand, also seemed mentally tough enough to keep the Wimbledon beast at bay. Part of that, perhaps, was his Scottish roots, part his teenage training days in Barcelona. And from the moment he hit the pro tour, Murray blandly insisted that his favorite major was the U.S. Open. It made sense, if not friends.

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"That's part of his strength: He's able to keep away a lot of the stuff that's too big for a lot of us to deal with," Petchey says. "Growing up, I don't think this was the biggest tournament for him: New York was the one that he wanted to win over everything else. It suited his personality. He went to Spain, grew up on the clay; he was a baseliner. Grass is a notoriously quicker surface and when he was growing up, remember, serve-and-volley still had a place. It would have been tough for him to envisage that this was the title he was going to win."

But string advances and the slowing of the Wimbledon surface allowed that vision to change, and Murray did just that. Only one other player -- Goran Ivanisevic -- had made more appearances here before winning the title than Murray's eight, but he toiled on, became a fiend for fitness. He added a coach, Ivan Lendl, whose own obsession with winning Wimbledon was never realized. And when Murray cried after losing to Roger Federer in last year's final, "that's when people started to realize how much he cared," says U.S. Davis Cup captain Jim Courier. "It was a beautiful moment."

And from then on, Murray began to roll in a way that could only raise expectation, feed the beast: Murray beat Federer on Centre Court to win Olympic gold last summer, then beat Djokovic to win his first major at, yes, the U.S. Open. Then Federer -- Wimbledon's darling, the avatar of toffs the world over -- went crashing out of this year's draw. Last year's final crowd had been stunningly divided: Between the yearning for what a touchy Scot might achieve, and adoration for a way of being. "I love you, Roger!" men yelled, without once fearing a beating.

There would be none of that this time. Djokovic inspires more fear than love and on Sunday, in the kind of scorching heat -- 104 degrees, courtside -- that inspired Noël Coward's jibe about mad dogs and Englishmen, few were in the mood to be generous. Thousands began cramming onto the Wimbledon grounds hours before, scurrying for a patch on Henman Hill, and outside they kept coming. The narrow lanes were filled with black cabs and streams of folks chattering their way down to the All-England Club. A man stood on a corner, asking almost angrily, "Anybody got tickets to sell?"

Thick bodies shouldered past. The morning's Observer had it that a pair was going for 71,000 British pounds -- $105,790 -- but money was just money. This was the day: Everyone knew it. Their steps picked up speed as the hill steeped down to the club; they passed a royal mailbox, painted gold in honor of Murray's Olympic win, squatting outside the flat rented by Federer's agent, Tony Godsick. "Every morning I have to see this," Godsick moaned a few days before. Now they lined up at the gates: The Union Jack inside, the one that had weathered every kind of rain, drizzle, storm for decades, stirred in a soft breeze.

This was the day. It had to be. The papers were full of all that Murray had done to gird himself, to become the man to end the drought: His 6,000 calorie-a-day diet, his now-massive and muscled bulk, the goal still to pare his body-fat down to three percent. Everybody was sure of his state of mind; everybody had a read. "He knows the whole nation is 100 percent behind him but he's already happy with himself," said Lloyd Saturday night. "It's not like he's going out there thinking, 'Holy crap, if I don't' win this one ...' He's already won a Slam. If he doesn't win this it's not the end of the world. Some people here might think it is -- but it isn't."

Andy Murray's win at Wimbledon proved a relief as much as a thrill for player and countrymen alike.
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

The day's first point took 18 strokes to finish; it looked like another epic had begun. But Djokovic had clearly been softened up by Juan Martin Del Potro in their marathon semifinal; his serve was spotty, his overhead dodgy, his strokes both rushed and lacking the usual sting. "It took a lot out of me," Djokovic admitted Sunday. "I didn't feel maybe I had enough gas in the important moments."

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Murray pushed him to eight break points in the first set and converted twice. When he rallied back from a 1-4 deficit in the second -- the air filled now with images of Djokovic falling, Djokovic netcords skipping wide, Djokovic heaving and arguing beneath the hammering sun -- the momentum seemed unstoppable. A Daily Mail reporter all but cackled, "Is this the day our forefathers have been waiting for?" Murray served out the second set at love, and that seemed the nail in it: Nobody had come back from two sets down to win Wimbledon since 1927.

"Of course, he's going to do it," said Caroline Dempsey, 63, a Londoner from Northern Ireland up on Henman Hill; she wore a Union Jack as a dress. "Never in doubt."

All around her, thousands sat on the grass in the heat, marinating in a mix of sweat and lager. They roared for every won point, chanted, "Let's go, An-dy, Let's go!", but the biggest cheer rose whenever the big screen flashed shots of them all gathered on the hill. Why not? The day was as much about them as it was about Murray -- or more. Britain still had an empire when Fred Perry won here last.

"It's 77 years of hurt," Petchey said. "This is a very special court. It's got the mystique. It's got the allure. And to have a Brit out there, performing like he does to win it? It pulls everyone together. Sport is a great healer, a comer-together, and as a nation, when you see somebody out there achieve what they've set their hearts on, you can't help but be unified."

Oh, this was the day. But it couldn't be too easy. When Murray dropped his serve to go down 2-4 in the third, a woman sitting in Centre Court was heard to mutter, "Come on, Andy"; as if fearing the worst, and suddenly what had been something of a letdown, a not-great display of tennis, shifted into narrative overdrive. The hot air grew palpably tenser. Everyone was thinking collapse, history: The want was thick now. A siren could be heard wailing beyond the walls -- Andy in trouble! -- but Djokovic squandered his serve right back, staring at his box as he walked to his chair as if to say, I've got nothing left here. He got no argument. Fatalism had set in there, too.

"The spectators were another player for Andy," said Djokovic's coach, Marian Vadja, after. But he was smiling: Sometimes you've got to know when to get out of the way. "This is what they waited for, for 77 years," he said. "It's something special for the nation, and I think they all deserve it. It has to come, I thought. You could see it today. He deserved it. It was all the way through him."

Now Murray rolled through the next two games to take a 5-4 lead. The crowd chanted "Mur-ray! Mur-ray!", and the sky seemed to shake, and all seemed well as he sailed to 40-0.

And then: Torture. It's as if, like someone bidding goodbye to an old, annoying friend, Murray and Britain couldn't let go just yet. One more time, for old times sake? And for ten final minutes it went on, old Fred shaking his finger: Here came a Djokovic forehand volley, a pelting service return, a Murray backhand long to set things back to deuce; three match points gone. Murray's brain overheated. "My head was kind of everywhere," he said.

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Three times, then, Djokovic had the chance to break: Murray cracked a service winner; then won a 21-stroke rally, chest soaked and heaving after, with a whipped approach forehand; then tunneled forward to finish with a backhand volley. Centre Court bellowed his name, the first one this time. He deserved it. "I worked so hard that last game," Murray said. "It's the hardest few points I've had to play in my life."

At 5:24 p.m., London time, he set up at the baseline with the match on his racket. He bounced the ball, four times, tossed it high and cracked it wide, 130 miles per hour. The ball came back. Murray hit it. It didn't come again. So he ran to that corner, first, and then lay down face first in middle of the grass and let the screaming and clapping roll over his back. Someone asked tennis historian Bud Collins, who knew Fred Perry, if he ever thought he'd see the day. "No," Collins said, staring. "I didn't."

Then came the aftermath, the usual orchestrated perfection: The little tea table with a Union Jack cover, the one that had greeted decade after decade of foreign champs, was set up with the gold trophy on top. Sue Barker asked Murray nice questions; she told him it was torturous to watch. "Imagine playing it," Murray said. He gave a nod to the country's long wait, and said of the day, "I hope you guys enjoyed it." Everyone laughed.

But it was before that, when Murray was sitting in his chair waiting, that what he'd done began to tell. He was bowed over at first, face in his hands and head shaking back and forth as if to say no. Finally his hands dropped and he sat back, but his eyes stayed wide and his head was still shaking. You've never seen a winner in such disbelief, and everyone knew just how he felt. And very soon that, too, would come to an end.

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