LONDON (Reuters) – The last few heart-pounding strides towards the summit proved the most precarious for Andy Murray as he beat Novak Djokovic to end a 77-year British jinx at Wimbledon on a Sunday that will forever be etched in the nation’s sporting fabric.
The record books will show an almost routine 6-4 7-5 6-4 win for the boy from Dunblane but the three hours nine minutes it took to finish off a slightly below-par Djokovic felt like an eternity.
It was more tortuous than any of the five-set thrillers that Murray has contested in his career – most recently when he came from two sets down to beat Spain’s Fernando Verdasco in the quarter-finals to keep the dream alive.
With the 15,000 people on a baking Centre Court bellowing his name and millions glued to TV screens around the country Murray stepped up to serve at 5-4 needing four points to emulate Fred Perry who won the last of his three titles here in 1936.
Three points later, amid a cacophony of sound that even surpassed the decibel level reached when he won Olympic gold on the same stage last year, it was 40-0.
But this most unpredictable of Wimbledons, a tournament stacked with shocks and unexpected turns, was not about to let Murray achieve British sporting immortality without one final, stomach-churning, twist.
World number one Djokovic, who was ahead in both the second and third sets only to be engulfed by a tide of patriotic fervor, saved all three and then had a point to make it 5-5 after dribbling a drop volley off the net tape.
Had he done so the statue of Perry perched in the grounds of the All England Club might still be casting a shadow over British tennis but Murray, whose broad shoulders have carried home hopes for nearly a decade, would not stumble.
With his pulse racing and nerves on fire he conjured up a fourth matchpoint and this time Djokovic succumbed, netting a backhand to spark cheers from Land’s End to John O’Groats.
“It’s the hardest few points I’ve had to play in my life,” said a dazed Murray.
“That last game went my head was everywhere. That last game will be the toughest game I’ll play in my career, ever.”
Twelve months ago Murray’s Wimbledon dream was crushed by Roger Federer on the same stage – yet that tear-jerking defeat proved to be a watershed for the obstinate 26-year-old.
A few weeks later he claimed the Olympic gold medal before beating Djokovic to win the U.S. Open and his first grand slam title after four times falling at the final hurdle.
Despite those milestones, Murray knew that becoming the first British man to win Wimbledon in shorts would ultimately define his career.
“For the last four or five years, it’s been very, very tough, very stressful, a lot of pressure,” said Murray, the only British man to reach the second round this year.
“I felt a little bit better this year than I did last year. But it’s not easy. I think now it will become easier. I hope it will.”
When Perry thrashed Germany’s Gotfried von Cramm 6-1 6-1 6-0 in 1936 – the same year the BBC made the world’s first television broadcast and Jesse Owens won four Olympic golds in pre-war Berlin, it proved to be his swansong.
Approaching his athletic peak and with age and injuries catching up with 17-times grand slam champion Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal, Murray could have several more memorable Sundays on Centre Court in the next few years.
There were ironic shouts of “C’mon Roger” and C’mon Rafa”, but as Murray and Djokovic embellished a rivalry that began when they were 12-year-olds it was hard to disagree that they are now the biggest draws in men’s tennis.
Similar in style, they have both turned retrieving lost causes and switching from defense to attack into an art-form.
The opening three games on Sunday took 20 minutes with a succession of punishing baseline rallies leaving both men gasping in the hottest temperatures of the fortnight.
“The first few games were brutal,” said Murray, who climbed into the stands to hug every member of his sizeable entourage, beginning with coach Ivan Lendl after kneeling with his head bowed on the grass.
“It was a physically incredibly demanding match.”
Murray was the early aggressor, earning the first break of serve in the third game – by which time both players were sweat-soaked.
Djokovic hit back immediately but Murray broke again for a 4-3 lead and clinched an absorbing opening set in an hour – just as he had done against Federer a year earlier when he went on to lose the next three.
Murray trailed 4-1 in the second set but Djokovic handed back the break of serve with a double-fault and Murray leveled for 4-4 after saving two break points.
Serving at 5-5 Djokovic began to lose his cool, arguing with umpire Mohamed Lahyani about a line call and Murray pounced to move ahead 6-5 before claiming the second set with an ace.
Six-times grand slam champion Djokovic seemed to have given up on a second Wimbledon crown when he went 2-0 down in the third but he reeled off four consecutive games.
There was a sigh of relief as Murray stopped the rot and at 4-4 the Scot played two incredible points to move to within one successful service game of glory.
Even the bust of the late Perry might have perspired during the next 13 minutes but Murray would not be denied.
“The bottom line is that he was a better player in decisive moments,” said Djokovic who still leads Murray 11-8 in their career head-to-head.
“He played fantastic tennis, no question about it. He deserved to win.”
Play concluded at a memorable 127th Wimbledon championships with more French success as Kristina Mladenovic and 40-year-old Canadian partner Daniel Nestor, cheered on by women’s singles champion Marion Bartoli, beat Bruno Soares and Lisa Raymond 5-7 6-2 8-6 to win the mixed doubles title.