Murray and Djokovic were born a week apart in May 1987, and they’ve known, and competed against, each other since they were about 11. Before Saturday’s semifinals in New York, they shared a computer and sat together to watch online as Scotland and Serbia played to a 0-0 draw in a qualifying match for soccer’s World Cup.
It was windy at the start Monday, gusting above 25 mph, and Murray dealt with it much better. Djokovic admitted after his semifinal that he was bothered by heavy wind while falling behind 5-2 in the first set Saturday; that’s when play was suspended until the next day, the reason the tournament finished on a Monday instead of Sunday for the fifth consecutive year. Murray faced similar conditions in the semifinals, too — when a changeover chair skidded onto the court as he served one point — and joked after that victory that growing up in wind-whipped Scotland helped.
Murray had plenty of noteworthy fans in the stands Monday, including a pair of Scots who crashed his news conference after that semifinal: actor Sean Connery and Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson. The last British woman to win a Grand Slam singles title, 1977 Wimbledon champion Virginia Wade, also was present, chatting between games with actor Stanley Tucci.
With the air carrying balls and making them dip or dart this way and that, nearly every shot became a bit of an adventure. Both players repeatedly needed to adjust mid-swing, contorting their bodies simply to make contact. Both let service tosses fall to the ground because the ball would move out of hitting range. As the wind wrapped around the chair umpire’s microphone, it made a loud, distracting sound that resembled thunder.
They traded nearly mirror-image breaks in the first two games, and that made sense, given how good both are at returning serve. Two of the best in the game right now, maybe ever. Djokovic crouches low, his back nearly parallel to the ground, before an opponent serves. Murray shuffles his weight from leg to leg and hops forward at the last second to cut off angles.
Both worked hard, the physical nature taking a toll. Djokovic’s right knee was bloodied after he scraped it during a few tumbles to the court when he lost his footing, and he switched shoes late in the third set. Murray clutched his left thigh while deciding not to chase a lob.
There were 10 points of at least 10 strokes each in the first-set tiebreaker, which lasted 25 minutes. Djokovic saved each of Murray’s initial five set points, the last with a 123 mph ace to make it 10-all. But Djokovic’s backhand flew long at the end of a 21-shot exchange to cede set point No. 6, and this time Murray converted, hitting a 117 mph serve that Djokovic couldn’t put in the court.
Murray turned toward his guest box and bellowed, “Come on!”
That loss to Federer in this year’s Wimbledon final left Murray in tears, his voice cracking as he told the supportive Centre Court crowd, “I’m getting closer.” He appeared to be really, really close Monday, after seizing that epic first set and then racing to a 4-0 lead in the second.
But Djokovic is nothing if not tenacious, and he would not go quietly. Raising his level of play as Murray took a step or two backward, Djokovic broke for 4-1 and then again when Murray served for a two-set lead at 5-3. That’s when Murray made three unforced errors, truly showing some jitters, as though the prospect of such prosperity was a tad overwhelming.
When Djokovic held to 5-all, it seemed as though the second set might head to a tiebreaker, too.
But with Djokovic serving while trailing 6-5, he was the one who faltered. On a 31-stroke point, Djokovic missed a forehand to make it 15-30. Then Murray’s defensive skills came into play, as he got one overhead back and forced Djokovic to hit a second, which sailed wide. Chest heaving, Djokovic put his hands on his hips, having a hard time understanding what was happening. Two points later, Djokovic pushed an inside-out forehand wide, giving Murray that set. Even Lendl rose to his feet.
Djokovic, though, knows how to fashion a comeback. He’s won three times after facing a two-set hole, most recently in the French Open’s fourth round this year, and most notably in the U.S. Open’s semifinals against Federer last year.
After stretching for a backhand volley winner to hold at 1-1 in the third, Djokovic let out a guttural yell and pumped his fists. Across the net, Murray frowned and shook his head. In the very next game, as Murray kept up a monologue of self-admonishment, Djokovic kept up his better-late-than-never charge. He broke for a 2-1 lead, turning on a 126 mph serve with a terrific return. Soon enough, they were headed to a fourth set.
Djokovic held onto the momentum there. He secured a break point by tapping the ball over the net with the lightest caress, then took four steps, raised his right fist and yelled. There was more punching of the air and screaming seconds later after a volley winner put Djokovic ahead 1-0.