FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. — Andy Murray hasn’t always been the easiest tennis player to cheer — too much of a defiant Scot for British fans to embrace, too much of a stoic Brit for American fans to warm up to.
But in a performance that revealed the depth of his fitness, mental resolve and competitive heart, Murray took his place atop the sport Monday, outlasting defending champion Novak Djokovic to win the U.S. Open and claim his long-awaited first major, 7-6 (12-10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2.
At 4 hours 54 minutes, it tied the record for the longest U.S. Open men’s final in history. Played out against gusting wind as a bright afternoon sun yielded to a chilly night, the battle demanded every shot in each player’s arsenal: Slices, lobs, laser-like groundstrokes, impossibly angled passing shots, blistering service returns and gently kissed drop shots.
Djokovic, 25, perhaps the fleetest and fittest man in the sport, summoned medical help late in the fifth set to knead out the cramps in his lower legs. Meanwhile Murray, who could easily have imploded after frittering away a two-sets-to-none lead, trotted behind the baseline to keep his limbs and mind limber, tantalizingly close to the prize he had sought for so long.
When Djokovic’s final service return sailed long, Murray didn’t erupt in fist pumps or theatrics upon snapping his 0-4 streak in Grand Slam finals and becoming the first British man to win a major title in 76 years. He lowered himself in a crouch, buried his face in his hands and let a private tear fall while others did the cheering.
“When I’ve been in that position many times before and not won, you do think, ‘Is it ever going to happen?’” Murray said afterward. “When it finally does, you’re obviously very excited but mainly relieved to get over that last hurdle.”
Djokovic, a rival and friend since childhood, was so admiring of Murray’s achievement despite his own disappointment that he ran around to Murray’s side of the court to offer a congratulatory hug. “He has proven today that he is a champion,” Djokovic said afterward. “He deserves to be where he is, no question about it.”
Murray made the breakthrough nine months after hiring Hall of Famer Ivan Lendl as his coach. Under Lendl’s tutelage, the Scot reached his first Wimbledon final, but wept upon losing to Roger Federer. Four weeks later, Murray avenged the defeat by winning Olympic gold for Britain on the same hallowed court. The triumph fully endeared him to a wary British public, which the younger Murray had alienated by making a point to say that the U.S. Open, rather than Wimbledon, was his favorite Grand Slam, and correcting those who identified him as a Brit rather than a Scot.
“He is one of the greatest players to ever play,” Murray said of Lendl, 52, who also lost the finals of his first four majors before winning the 1984 French Open, then amassing seven more majors before retiring. “It’s great to have him supporting me in tough moments.”
Monday’s first set alone lasted 87 minutes and was worth the price of admission, highlighted by a 54-stroke rally that Djokovic won in the sixth game. With neither giving an inch, a tiebreaker was needed to settle it. After falling behind 3-5 in the tiebreaker, Murray erupted in an expletive filled rant of self-recrimination. Serving with the wind behind, Murray finally closed the tiebreaker on his sixth set point.
The Scot then rolled to a 4-0 lead in the second set. But Djokovic stormed back to level at five games each, only to flub an overhead that handed Murray two set points. And on an errant forehand, all of the Serb’s heroic work was erased. Murray took a two-sets-to-none lead.
Djokovic conceded nothing, winning the third set.
Djokovic seemed the fitter man, mentally and physically, as the match crept into its fourth hour. The Serb gamely attacked short balls, seizing any opportunity to charge the net. He broke Murray to open the fourth set.
“Jelly!” the Scot yelled, berating his lazy legs.
Murray capped a 30-stroke rally with a forehand winner that sent the Serb tumbling and drew a standing ovation. But Djokovic forged on, breaking the Scot twice to force a fifth set.
Murray broke Djokovic to open the decisive set. And after consolidating the break with terrific serves and tough defense, the Scot flapped his arms at the crowd, whose loyalty was in play in all night, rooting only for more tennis. “Come on! Come on!” the Scot yelled.
He took a 3-0 lead on a second break, only to hand it back to Djokovic, who reeled off two successive games.
But the Serb started cramping, serving at 2-4.
The match was on the Scot’s racket, serving at 5-2. And the match ended when the Serb sent a final service return long.
“I really tried my best,” Djokovic said. “I gave it all. It was a tremendous match to be a part of.”