Tuesday, September 11, 2012

U.S. Open Final: Opens are Forever

Take off your trousers, Britain. Put them on your head, and tighten them with your belt (or not). Let your freak flag fly! Andy Murray is the U.S. Open champion.

2012 has been quite a year in the tennis life of the Scot. For years, he's been touted as a potential grand slam champion, only to more often then not come off on court as an easily-irritated, slump-shouldered, overly-stubborn, too-defensive player lacking the necessary in-match aggression needed to survive the two-week pressure-cooker of a slam fortnight. Still, to his credit, he was a multiple slam finalist (although before taking a set off Roger Federer in this year's Wimbledon championship match, Murray had never even won a set in any of his previous three final appearances), but he just didn't seem to fit the part of a slam champion. He didn't have the mettle.

But then came Ivan Lendl. And then came the London Olympics.

The no-nonsense Lendl, an eight-time slam champion (who reached eight straight U.S. Open finals from 1982-89), came aboard as Murray's coach with the not-so-subtle underlying promise that if the Scot didn't follow his instructions and/or verbally struck back against his teachings as he had during his previous coach/player relationships, then they'd no longer be working together. If he berated HIM while he watched from the stands, he'd stand up and walk out. Lendl, using a "tough love" approach, wasn't going to take Murray's crap. After weathering some inconsistent-to-bad results in the spring, Lendl's efforts to settle Murray, allow him to better handle pressure, get physically stronger, and be willing to use his new strength by mixing big shots into his defensive style during important matches, rather than always choosing to hang back and hope for his opponent to make an error when the match was on the line, gradually took hold.

Perhaps Murray realized that everything Lendl told him was his best path to accomplishing his tennis goals, or maybe he was just too afraid of what the stoic, often-expressionless Czech champion might do if he were to disappoint him. Either way, over the course of the summer, Murray and Lendl's work has paid increasing dividends.

He reached his first Wimbledon final. Then, as part of the huge British Olympic team, when the entire pressure of the U.K.'s sporting world wasn't on Murray's shoulders during the London tennis event, he claimed the Gold Medal at the All-England Club. With so many others assuming at least some of the burden usually heaped upon only him by the British media and fans, the Scot was a virtual "face in the crowd." A very recognizable one, for sure. But, still, a face among many donning the host nation's colors. His new status served him well throughout the Olympic event. In the final against a notch-below-normal Federer, Murray showed not a hint of nerves, nor all the emotional barnacles that have annually prevented him from being at his best in the biggest moments during the slam season. The Gold Medal match, except for a few tense moments, played out like the (partial) cleansing of the collective British tennis soul after nearly eighty years of male tennis "stars" coming up well short of success on the sport's grand stages. The Gold run didn't wipe away all of Murray's past inabilities to win on the slam stage, though. But it surely lessened the overwhelming weight of expectation that four times a season had pulled the Scot below the surface. Essentially, it extended his "grace period."

Turns out, he didn't need it.

The Olympics were no pressure-cooker for Murray, but the U.S. Open could have been. And for a bit in the final against defending champion, Novak Djokovic, it looked as if Sean Connery, on hand at Ashe Stadium and intending to cheer on his Scottish countryman to victory, was instead going to watch him be boiled in the NYC pot in what would have been the most crushing loss of his entire career. Why, it was like Murray was playing the 007 role, while Djokovic was the dastardly Bond villain. Only this time, the Serbian "Dr. No" was going to win, while the Brit wasn't going to escape with his life just in the nick of time.

But right when it seemed as if Murray's latest slam hopes were going head-first into a Bondian buzzsaw, all the gadgets that Lendl ("Q?") had worked to provide him with, were pulled out and used to save the day, while Djokovic physically hit the wall on the other side of the net after nearly five hours of battle. As it turned out, as far as Murray was concerned, you really do "only live twice."

In the fifth consecutive weather-delayed Monday men's final (after just one in the previous thirty-two years), the elements once again played a part. Windy conditions effected groundstrokes and service tosses, and particularly bothered Djokovic's game, as his fractured timing sometimes made him look as out-of-sorts as he had in the opening set of his semifinal against David Ferrer. But while the Serb was looking to win his sixth slam, defend his U.S. Open title and return to the #1 ranking, it was Murray who broke off the start line first, as the Scot broke Djokovic at love in the opening game. But while Murray broke Djokovic twice in the set, he managed to give both advantages back, and the set ultimately went into a tie-break.

Djokovic led 5-3, but the constant ebb-and-flow of the set-deciding breaker always put Murray in better position to take the set. But it was a struggle. While Djokovic never held a set point, Murray had six. He failed to convert at 6-5, 7-6, 8-7 (Djokovic saved it on a 33-shot rally), 9-8 and 10-9, but, at 11-10, Murray had the opportunity to serve with the wind. It made the difference. His hold for 12-10 ended the 24-minute tie-break, and 1:27 1st set.

Murray took a quick lead in the 2nd set, as well. He got a break of serve to go up 2-0, and led 4-0. Murray even held for 5-2. But Djokovic came charging back. Serving at 5-3, Murray fell behind love/40 and was broken in a game in which he donated three errors. At 5-5, when Djokovic went up 15/love in Murray's next serve game, the Serb had won thirteen of sixteen points. But Murray, unlike in big moments in the past, didn't fold. He won a 30-shot rally to go up 30/15 on Djokovic's serve, and when the champ pushed an overhead shot wide, Murray led 40/15. A Djokovic forehand error gave the set to the Scot, 7-5, and put the former #1 into a two-set hole.

And then Murray began to revert to form. As did Djokovic.

After having slogged through many tough moments (including in the SF vs. Murray, who'd led two sets to one) en route to winning the Australian Open in January, Djokovic was back in patented comeback form. He broke Murray for a 2-1 lead in the 3rd, then held for 4-2 after having fallen behind 15/40. He won the set 6-2, and continued to get the better of Murray in the 4th as his aggressive play and many net approaches put the Scot on his heels as his first slam title seemed to be slipping from his grasp. After hitting a funky-looking drop shot winner off a spinning Murray shot, a Djokovic volley winner got a break of serve in game #1 of the 4th set. He then pulled an Open crown wanting to see a five-setter firmly into his corner (at least for a while). With consistently bigger shots coming from his side of the court, Djokovic broke Murray to take the set at 6-3, leveling the match as the match time hit 4:00. The Serb didn't overly celebrate his knotting of the match, saving his energy for the deciding set. It looked like he truly meant business.

The thought at the time was that Murray had blown his chance. Going to a 5th set was tantamount to Djokovic being crowned the U.S. Open champion for a second straight year. If Murray had learned anything during his time with Lendl and during his Gold run in London, this was where it'd have to show up. He'd have to win the old-fashioned way -- he'd have to earn it. But there was very little hope that he was up to the task.

But he was. In fact, in a reverse of previous fortunes, it was Murray who lifted his game, while Djokovic physically wilted.

Murray got a quick break of serve for 1-0 then, sporting a bigger serve, held for 2-0. In game #3, Djokovic executed three consecutive overhead shots to get to game point (and exhorted the crowd to cheer his effort even more), but the two-deuce game ended with a groundstroke error, a break of serve and a 3-0 Murray lead. Getting behind the only "Andy" left in the men's game after this Open, the crowd was now back on the Scot's side. Djokovic got a break one game later, then completed a tough hold for 3-2, but as the match hit the four-and-a-quarter hour mark, he began to experience physical issues. Walking slowly between points, flexing his legs and shaking them out (cramps?), it was apparent his movement was hindered. He was unable to fully push off his legs when serving, and he began taking all-or-nothing swings during rallies to shorten points. Down 15/40 on serve, he netted a forehand and went down 5-2 on the scoreboard. Djokovic took a medical break for an apparent groin strain at that point, leaving Murray, after managing to save himself once already at the start of the 5th, in the position of either serving things out to soar to a new career height or fail to do it and potentially experience the most devastating loss of his career.

He chose the former option.

Murray quickly went up 40/love on serve. Djokovic saved one Championship Point, but hit a long return on the second. Murray won 7-6(10)/7-5/2-6/3-6/6-2 in an instantly-classic match that tied for the longest (4:54) U.S. Open final ever. While Connery was on hand to witness history, it was 2 a.m. in the U.K. when Murray became the first British man to win a slam singles title since 1936. Ironically, the last British champ, Fred Perry, won HIS first career slam title on (NYC time) the very same September 10th day back in 1933, at the U.S. Open in Forest Hills, NY.

When Murray lost in the Wimbledon final two months ago, it didn't go unnoticed that he then sported a 0-4 record in slam finals, the same mark that Lendl had held after his first four major finals. Lendl finally won his first slam on his fifth try, coming back from two sets to none down against John McEnroe at Roland Garros in 1984. One wondered if the knowledge might mean something to Murray. After winning Olympic Gold last month, one of the Scot's immediate on-court reactions was to talk about how much he desired to lift a U.S. Open trophy to, in his eyes, be able to say he'd accomplished everything he'd ever wanted in his career. Then, in some ways, history repeated itself. In HIS fifth slam final, Murray, just like Lendl, found a way to finally earn it. He wasn't down 0-2, but being tied 2-2 with Djokovic after having led 2-0 surely seems fairly equivalent to having a similar appointment with disaster. It was all almost enough to make even the most seemingly emotion-less Czech-turned-American smile.

As Murray was interviewed on court by CBS's Mary Carillo after the match, Lendl's contribution to the Scot's first career slam was a huge topic. As he was lavished with praise, from his place in the stands, Lendl began to react. There was a facial expression... he opened his mouth, ever so slightly... we even saw a tiny hint of teeth... were we going to see it? Ummm, no. It didn't happen. Not really. Of course, the missed-it-by-that-much moment still provided the line of the night, as Murray, having watched Lendl on the stadium's big screen, said, "I think that was almost a smile."

It brought down the house, just like Murray did in this Open final. Finally. The Scot will never have to be an "almost" champion again.

As Connery knows, diamonds are forever. But, as Murray will now find out, so are U.S. Open championships.

#3 Andy Murray/GBR def. #2 Novak Djokovic/SRB 7-6/7-5/2-6/3-6/6-2

#4 Serena Williams/USA def. #1 Victoria Azarenka/BLR 6-2/2-6/7-5

#2 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) def. #5 Paes/Stepanek (IND/CZE) 6-3/6-4

#2 Errani/Vinci (ITA/ITA) def. #3 Hlavackova/Hradecka (CZE/CZE) 6-4/6-2

Makarova/Soares (RUS/BRA) def. #4 Peschke/Matkowski (CZE/POL) 6-7/6-1/12-10

#2 Filip Peliwo/CAN def. #13 Liam Broady/GBR 6-2/2-6/7-5

(WC) Samantha Crawford/USA def. #12 Anett Kontaveit/EST 7-5/6-3

#8 Edmund/Ferreira Silva (GBR/POR) def. #6 Kyrgios/Thompson (AUS/AUS) 5-7/6-4/10-6

#4 Andrews/Townsend (USA/USA) def. #2 Bencic/Uberalova (SUI/SVK) 6-4/6-3

24...Roger Federer, SUI (17-7)
16...Rafael Nadal, ESP (11-5)
5...ANDY MURRAY, GBR (1-4)
4...Lleyton Hewitt, AUS (2-2)

8...Roger Federer (6-2)
6...David Ferrer (5-1)
6...ANDY MURRAY (3-3)
5...Rafael Nadal (4-1)
4...Juan Monaco (3-1)
4...John Isner (2-2)
4...Nicolas Almagro (2-2)

All for now.

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