NEW YORK -- How would it look? How would it look when a British man won a Grand Slam tennis tournament for the first time in roughly halfway to forever? How would it look when the 76 years of nattering, chattering questions finally went hushed?
What would Andy Murray do? How would he react once his identity changed in an instant, once his fear of becoming the first man to lose his first five major finals vanished, once he nixed what he called "the notion that British tennis players choke or don't win?" Would he fall to his knees like Borg, fall on his back like Nadal, maybe even have a quick, quaking sob like Ivanisevic?
Might he faint?
After all, the moment came after almost five hours of punishing tennis and astonishing rallies against the exemplary fighter Novak Djokovic. It came after another of those matches when you'd gasp at the impenetrable rabbit defense of this era, after a stirring, 12-10, first-set tiebreak with rallies of 25, 16, 29, 22, 34 and 17 shots, and after one point in the first set required 55 shots, until you thought you might die of natural causes just watching it. It came after the kind of slugfest -- Murray won two sets, then Djokovic roared through two sets -- that makes it believable that Murray takes painkillers before most hard-court matches.
But it did come, not in Melbourne or Paris or Wimbledon but on an autumnal September Monday night in Queens, New York, the winds swirling, the clock striking 9, or 2 a.m. Scotland time. Murray went out to serve for the match with a 5-2 lead and an opponent clearly infirm. He walked around behind the baseline while the physiotherapist attended to Djokovic's leg, and he entertained a big thought.
“When you're on the court, you don't necessarily feel it,” he said, "but I know when I was serving for the match, there's a sense of how, you know, how big a moment that is in British tennis history, really.”
His mother, Judy, cradled her chin in her hands. A short-time tour player in the early 1980s herself, she's the first architect of his game, and like most first coaches, she still can pinpoint an issue in the first 30 seconds of a halfway-around-the-world phone call. She still knows almost precisely how he will play each shot. At the scary juncture after the fourth set, with the fearsome Djokovic all charged back from two sets down with his 27-match hard-court Grand Slam winning streak, she knew Murray would be fine by the look on his face when he emerged from the bathroom break he took to have “a think,” as he put it.
She sat there and thought, Get the first serve in, and serve to the forehand side of the deuce court.
“Time,” the chair umpire said, and so it was time. Seventy-six years from Fred Perry beating Don Budge 10-8 in the fifth set of the 1936 U.S. Championships, back when people existed only in black-and-white. All the outright futility and then the Tim Henman hope of it all 10 to 15 years back, all down to one game, a first serve in, a snap-backhand overhead for 15-love, then 30-love, 40-love, 40-15, and then Murray briefly lining up on the wrong service side. If he had lost after a two-set lead, it would have haunted him through all the breathing years. If he had lost, period, he said, well, “No one’s ever lost their first five finals, you know, and I just didn’t’ really want to be that person,” which explained his pre-match doubts.
Yet after that first point, Murray had calmed, and up in the stands, Judy Murray had the same thought she had when her son Jamie won the 2007 Wimbledon mixed doubles with Jelena Jankovic: He's going to win.
The crowd got boisterous in the night air. People posed for photographs in the upper decks. (Really.) Then things got silent one last time, on the second match point, even if you almost hoped for a pause so you could mull the moment for the country that invented the game (in Birmingham, the one in England), and that stages its grandest event (Wimbledon). Only they don't pause, of course, so Murray served a second serve, and Djokovic mashed a forehand, and that thing screamed until Murray held up a finger the way players do when a shot is long.
How did it look? Well, Murray took a walk. Yeah. First he dropped his red racquet and walked around in a little circle. Then with a blue wristband on his left hand and a white one on his right, he put his hands on his face and knelt and gazed at his team, including the coach Ivan Lendl who supplied an extra mental boost this long year. Then he turned around and walked more, quickly finding Djokovic, who graciously had crossed to Murray's side of the court. “What I said is what I say to you,” Djokovic said later, “that he deserved to win and I'm glad he won this trophy.”
He added, “I mean it.”
Yet after that hug from two guys who first played each other at age 11, and who are a week apart in age, Murray walked still more. He walked around the net to the other side of the court, where he knelt again and seemed to cry again, as a ball boy scurried to scoop up his racquet.
Maybe after losing the 2008 U.S. Open final (to Roger Federer), the 2010 Australian Open final (to Federer), the 2011 Australian Open final (to Djokovic) and the 2012 Wimbledon final (to Federer), he just felt mystified enough that he needed a walk.
“I don’t know if it’s disbelief or whatever,” he would say later.
“‘Relief’ is probably the best word I would use to describe how I'm feeling just now,” he would say later.
“I think everyone is just in a little bit of shock, to be honest, that it’s kind of happened,” he would say later. “I see my mom after I have lost in Slam finals and stuff, and she’s been really upset, but everyone is really, really happy, but …”
“I proved that, you know, I can win the Grand Slams,” he would say later.
“I had a great opponent today,” Djokovic would say later.
So, what would the first British male Grand Slam champion in 76 years do upon winning?
Well of course, he would try to comprehend it.