WIMBLEDON, England — The final game felt as long as the three-hour slugfest that preceded it.
With history on his racket, Andy Murray let three chances to clinch the match slip away. His mind, which had been so clear despite the sweltering heat, turned hazy. His girlfriend, looking on from a guest box at Centre Court of the All England club, couldn’t clasp her hands, they trembled so much.
But in the context of British sporting history, the interminable final game of Sunday’s Wimbledon tennis championship was an eye-blink.
After fending off three break points, Murray cracked a huge serve that yanked world No. 1 Novak Djokovic wide, then followed with a forehand blast that the Serb plowed into the net. With it, Murray’s lifelong ambition was realized. And Britain’s 77-year wait for a homegrown men’s Wimbledon champion was over.
Camera shutters snapped, tears flowed, and Union Jack and Scottish saltire flags were raised in jubilation upon Murray’s 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 victory.
Since Fred Perry won the last of his three Wimbledon titles in 1936, Britain’s failure to produce a worthy heir had come to symbolize all the grandeur that had faded from the empire. England’s Tim Henman reached Wimbledon’s semifinal four times from 1998 to 2002 but lacked the grit and power to gut out the seven matches of best-of-five sets required to win the grass-court classic. Each year Henman fell short, Britain’s psyche seemed to suffer another small blow.
The 2012 London Olympics restored a measure of sporting pride. The city staged a glorious spectacle. British athletes won 65 medals. And at the All England club, Murray claimed the gold medal in the tennis competition.
But Wimbledon, the world’s oldest and most prestigious tennis tournament, is the true measure of greatness in the sport. And however proud the British were of Murray’s evolution from gangly Scottish teen to 2012 Olympic and U.S. Open champion, they would have regarded him as yet another disappointment had he never won Wimbledon.
After finally reaching the final last year, Murray wept upon losing to Roger Federer, the Swiss master whose game is perfectly tailored to grass, which rewards quickness, agility and a clever array of strokes.
If Murray’s return to the championship Sunday wasn’t the most anticipated event in Britain, it was second only to the birth of the Royal Baby. The story lines vied for prominence in London’s Sunday papers, with the Observer proclaiming “Day of Destiny” as Murray prepared for battle and the Sunday People touting “William’s Baby Vows,” which reportedly include promising “to change nappies” once Catherine, duchess of Cambridge, gives birth.
Centre Court’s Royal Box shimmered with statesmen, sporting heroes and global glitterati, including British Prime Minister David Cameron, the earl and countess of St. Andrews, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, tennis champion Rod Laver, soccer star Wayne Rooney, actors Gerard Butler and Bradley Cooper and former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham.
On the grounds beyond the stadium there wasn’t room for an extra fanny on Murray Mound (formerly known as Henman Hill), where fans draped in flags and covered in face paint watched on an oversize TV screen. Hundreds more watched via a giant screen set up next to Tower Bridge on the banks of the River Thames, where the clash of the world’s top two ranked players was occasion for a festival, chocked with food and drink stalls, including one hawking haggis in Murray’s honor.
Farther north in Murray’s home town of Dunblane, Scotland, the pubs were bursting at the doors. Roughly 150 more people packed into the community center to watch, Murray’s grandparents among them.
It was the 19th meeting between Murray and Djokovic, both 26, who have known each other since they were 11-year-olds on the European junior circuit. Djokovic, the world’s top-ranked player and 2011 Wimbledon champion, was the favorite in bookmakers’ eyes. But Murray had the 15,000-strong Centre Court crowd in his corner.
From the first point, both made clear they intended to fight until their legs or lungs expired, engaging in 25- and 30-stroke rallies that were more a test of resolve than technique. After trading service breaks, Murray got the break he needed to serve out the first set.
Inconsistent in the early going, Djokovic settled himself and bolted to a 4-1 lead in the next set. But after balking at a linesman’s call, the Serb went into a funk. As his focus strayed, Murray reeled off three consecutive games and, in short order, took a two-sets-to-none lead.
That sort of deficit might dispirit some, particularly in such a physical battle during the hottest part of the day, on London’s hottest day of the year. But not Djokovic, regarded as the fittest man on tour.
The third set was a must-win for the Serb, who seized a 4-2 advantage. But his fatigue showed itself as he switched tactics, hoping to shorten the rallies. Djokovic flicked drop shots, but Murray chased them down for winners. He tried hitting softer to disrupt the Scot; Murray was rock-steady.
But after storming back and finding himself one point from Wimbledon’s title, Murray couldn’t close the match.
The fans on Murray Mound were on their feet and screaming. Everyone, it seemed, had cameras or cellphones out, lenses fixed on Centre Court to capture the victory.
“It’s the hardest few points I’ve had to play in my life,” said Murray, a man not given to superlatives, still in a fog more than an hour after clinching the title and falling to his knees in disbelief.
But for the rest of Britain, there was nothing hazy about the day Andy Murray made tennis history.
At Tower Bridge, joyous fans erupted in cheers and hoisted cups of Pimm’s in the air. There was no room to move; no opening to see the street. “It’s great,” said software engineer Onat Oglakcioglu, 29. “You can feel the energy. They have been craving for the championship for about 80 years, so, a festival it will be.”
In a packed pub in south London, restaurant owner Herve Durochat, 39, exulted: “For 10 years I have been hearing about Tim Henman. But now it is Murray! Murray! Murray! He did it! Tonight, for London, it is going to be a bit of champagne and a bit of fun. It has been a long time people have been waiting for this.”
The residents of Dunblane poured into the streets, playing bagpipes, tooting horns and singing.
“There is so much pressure on any U.K. tennis player to win Wimbledon,” said Steve Birnie, 49, chairman of the Dunblane Centre. “It’s the thing everyone wants to win, no one has done it for 77 years. . . . He came so close last year, and was so heartbroken, so everyone this year thought, ‘If ever there was a time, this was it.’ . . . What a fantastic day.”