All champions have a passion for their sport, though they express it differently. Jimmy Connors loved competing, Pete Sampras loved winning, Serena Williams loves the spotlight, Ivan Lendl loved training, and Roger Federer loves, or at least thoroughly enjoys, everything about tennis.
Andy Murray is quite a different cup of tea. He loves thinking about tennis, specifically, thinking about tennis tactics. His mother Judy, Britain's astute Fed Cup captain, recalls early signs of this fascination. When Andy was 16 and unable to train because of an injury, he often watched tennis on television and took notes about matches. Then he would tell his mother, "If I was playing, here's what I would do." He was in tennis heaven studying great players and trying to learn what made them special. His brainy approach was encouraged when he trained as a teenager in Spain and was educated in both the basics and subtleties of clay court play.
When Murray hired Lendl as coach in early January, the tennis world was surprised because the eight-time Grand Slam winner had dropped out of tennis for 16 years after retiring and had no pro tour coaching experience. But the decision was highly logical. Lendl, who also lost his first four major finals, explained he relished the challenge of guiding Murray, who faced the same predicament he once did. For his part, Murray relished learning how Lendl analyzed the game. Murray, already a thinking man's player, followed no-nonsense Lendl's instructions to become more aggressive, particularly with his forehand, and when the going got tough, to stop sulking and start competing ferociously.
The learning curve was impressive this year. Murray lost a high-caliber marathon semifinal to then-world No. 1 Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open. Then he reached his first Wimbledon final where seven-time champion Roger Federer beat him in a respectable four-setter. The big breakthrough came at the London Olympics when Murray ousted Djokovic and outclassed Federer for a gold medal. But the talented 25-year-old still hadn't won a Grand Slam title that many observers, including long-time rivals Federer and Rafael Nadal, were sure he was destined to achieve.
Like Lendl, Murray snapped his ignominious Slam finals losing streak at four in a dramatic five-set match. At the 1984 French Open, Lendl, whose competitive spirit was also questioned, battled back after losing the first two sets to overcome John McEnroe. At Flushing Meadows, Murray took the first two sets, but the momentum shifted suddenly when Djokovic grabbed the next two. The suspenseful duel was really a tale of three chapters, and how Murray's smart tactics and resilience fashioned his stunning 7-6, 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2 triumph.
The new and improved Murray, no longer just a canny counter-puncher, adopted and then adapted to his own game a strategy Lendl disclosed during Wimbledon. "Tennis is basically a game where you try to create an opportunity for yourself to finish the point, because you can't wait for the opponent to miss anymore," Lendl told The New York Times. "Well, if you create an opportunity and don't take advantage of it, you let the opponent back to even, then you are just starting the point over, so you have to take advantage of them."
Before the US Open final, Murray confidently said, "I will leave everything out there. I believe I am ready to win." CBS analyst Mary Carillo pointed out reasons Murray could prevail. "He loves the hard courts and he loves New York. This is where it all started for him as a junior [when he won the 2004 US boys' title]. This could be his time."
Murray enjoyed another asset against the slightly favored Serb who had captured the last three majors contested on hard courts. Already experienced at dealing with the notoriously vicious Scottish winds, Murray artfully managed gusting winds he called "the worst conditions I've ever played in," winds that befuddled Tomas Berdych for four semifinal sets. Murray took small, corrective steps to align his body to the ball and keep his balance. He "has the best improvisational skills in the sport," according to Tennis Channel analyst Justin Gimelstob. In contrast, Djokovic looked perplexed and awkward during the one wind-marred semifinal set he played—he trailed 5-2—on Sunday against David Ferrer.
Djokovic's footwork futility continued in the first chapter of the final that started with blustery 18-25 mph winds, unpredictably pushing the ball every which way. Self-destructing with a string of errors to lose eight of his first nine service points, Djokovic flung his racket in frustration toward his chair after double-faulting to give away his second service game. Even though Murray smartly dialed down his offense, sticking mostly with medium-speed shots safely away from the lines, he also lost his serve twice.
In the match that may determine the No. 1 player of the year, the first-set tiebreaker, in retrospect, may have determined the winner. It would provide the early answers to two key questions: Who would dictate most rallies from the center of the baseline? And who would handle the pressure better, particularly on the big points and in the pivotal games?
Murray decided to throw caution to the wind and attack as much as he could. He knocked Djokovic down with a clever body serve to make it 4-3 Djokovic, and then bullied Djokovic around with punishing groundstrokes that knocked him down again to even the tiebreaker at 5-5. Even though Djokovic staved off five set points, the relentless Murray finally induced a serve return error to earn the hard-fought, 24-minute tiebreaker , 12-10.
The second set followed the same pattern as the first with Murray quickly breaking Djokovic at love and then at 15 to race to a 4-0 lead. Murray artfully absorbed Djokovic's power, defended beautifully, moved Djokovic around and attacked opportunistically. Djokovic took Murray's change-of-pace bait and foolishly sliced one-handed backhands, his worst shot, when he should have been using his formidable two-hander.
"Murray isn't giving away any easy points," said CBS analyst McEnroe. "Djokovic is so frustrated that he can't hold back, he's too aggressive…. He's fighting the wind, Murray and himself. He has three opponents." When the Serb won five of the next six games, the Scot calmly and confidently reversed the momentum by becoming more offensive to take the set 7-5.
The second chapter of the fluctuating match saw the temperature drop into the 60s and the winds decrease in intensity. Djokovic's flat, powerful backhand landed more often and he sharply reduced his unforced errors, winning the third set, 6-2. Djokovic served superbly in the fourth set, belted 13 winners and held serve in the grueling sixth game. When he broke Murray's serve to grab the 6-3 fourth set, Djokovic looked fresher physically despite having played three sets the day before while Murray rested. The Serb also had won eight straight five-set encounters.
"Djokovic has the edge because he's come back, but it's not easy to come all the way back," cautioned McEnroe. The final chapter turned into a repeat of the first with Murray grabbing two early service breaks and a 3-0 lead. Djokovic wore a resigned look. Murray kept the pressure on with strong serve returns, his much-improved forehand and a tough-to-penetrate defense that forced Djokovic to go for low-percentage shots. When Djokovic fell behind 5-2, his body broke down, too, and he received a 3-minute break for the trainer to treat a thigh injury (although he might actually have been cramping). The end was delayed, but Murray could not be denied. He hit a dazzling backhand overhead winner and an ace to routinely take the championship game.
The riveting 4-hour, 53-minute duel featured glorious shots but too many errors to be considered a classic. That mattered little to Murray. He not only ended his drought but a much-longer drought by becoming the first British man to win a major singles title since Fred Perry pulled out an even tougher match here, 10-8 in the fifth set to Don Budge, way back in 1936.
"I was still doubting myself right up to a few minutes before you go on to play the match," Murray revealed afterwards. "You're thinking, Are you going to be able to do this? The match against him always is going to hurt, as well; physically it's challenging. Yeah, it's something I have never done before. I have been in this position many times and not managed to get through. [I'm] very, very happy that I managed to come through because if I had lost this one from two sets up, that would have been a tough one to take."
The Big 3—Federer, Djokovic and Nadal—had clearly become the Big 4. While Murray was still 3,180 ranking points behind No. 1 Djokovic, he could overtake Federer, who has many points to defend this fall, and finish the year at No. 2.
The future looks brighter than ever for Murray after a career-changing triumph that involved far more than the Xs and Os he and Lendl enjoy discussing. "I proved that I can win the Grand Slams," he said. "I proved that I can last four and a half hours and come out on top against one of the strongest guys physically that tennis had probably seen, especially on this surface. I have learned tonight to not doubt myself physically and mentally from now on."
Mats Wilander, the epitome of mental toughness when he captured seven major titles, predicted Murray would rack up five or six during his career. Could 2012, which produced four different Grand Slam champions, usher in a changing of the guard as 2003, the last previous year with four different Slam winners, did?
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Imagine ranking No. 1 in the world and going into the US Open final as a heavy underdog. Victoria Azarenka, the reigning Australian champion, found herself in that unenviable position. Why? On the other side of the net stood the most muscular, menacing, powerful player in women's tennis history.
Serena Williams boasted a 9-1 record (6-0 at majors) against Azarenka. This summer Serena beat Azarenka 6-1, 7-6 at Wimbledon and even more decisively 6-1, 6-2 at the Olympics, where Serena dropped just 17 games while decimating the field. The Serena Rampage continued at Flushing Meadows where she steamrolled her first six foes, allowing a total of only 19 games. She lost her serve only twice and belted 50 aces en route to the final.
Azarenka couldn't come close to matching those imposing stats, but she scored impressive US Open wins over defending champion Samantha Stosur (6-1, 4-6, 7-6) and French Open titlist Maria Sharapova (3-6, 6-2, 6-4). "She believes in herself a whole lot more," said CBS analyst Mary Carillo. "She competes better and doesn't get down on herself as she did in the past." Her perfect 12-0 record in three-set matches this year attested to her improved mental game. The 6' blond Belarusian also packed plenty of power, averaging 20.5 winners per US Open match, although her serve was only slightly better than average.
McEnroe expressed the conventional wisdom when he predicted, "She's going to have to play the best match of her life to have a chance." To prevail, Azarenka would have to return Serena's serve effectively and consistently, when she wasn't aced, find a way to hold her own serve, and prolong backcourt rallies to extract errors from the sometimes erratic Floridian.
None of that best-case Azarenko scenario happened in the first set. Breathtaking winners rocketed off Serena's racket. She broke serve for a 2-0 lead and then again to clinch the 6-2 set in intimidating fashion—double fault, overhead winner, a vicious, 85-mph backhand serve return winner and a backhand crosscourt winner.
Just when a rout seemed almost inevitable, Azarenka fought back fiercely, breaking Serena at 15 and holding her own serve at love. Suddenly, Serena started erring, sometimes wildly. Her footwork became sloppy and her intensity dropped. When Azarenka broke Serena's vaunted serve again to grab the second set by the stunning score of 6-2, the Open had its first three-set women's final since Steffi Graf edged Monica Seles in 1995.
Serena's mother, Oracene Price, yelled, "Stay focused. Settle down." But Azarenka kept the pressure on and shockingly broke Serena at love for 4-3 and then held for 5-3 with a forehand down-the-line winner.
"Can she close [the match out] is the question?" asked CBS analyst Chris Evert, renowned for her mental toughness while winning 18 majors. Afterwards, Serena would confide, "I really was preparing a runner-up speech at one point."
She didn't have to, though, because Azarenka broke herself with three errors to make it 5-all. The crowd roared. Despite Serena's mental meltdown and gross misconduct during the 2009 and 2011 Opens, spectators admired her courage and wondered: Could she come back yet another time from the brink of defeat?
After Serena easily held serve for a 6-5 lead, Azarenka valiantly struggled to force a tiebreaker and even twice led 40-30—surprising Serena by rushing net and knocking off a backhand volley and then with an effective body serve. But on championship point, Azarenka's backhand sailed deep.
As Serena jumped for joy several times, Azarenka buried her head in a towel and wept.
At that moment they could hardly fathom Rudyard Kipling's immortal words:
"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same."
Later, a composed Azarenka reflected on her thrilling 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 final with Kiplingesque wisdom and graciously praised Serena: "For me, she's the greatest player of all time. She took the game to the next level. Having players like that on the women's tour right now is something priceless—something you cannot take away."