Monday, 8 July 2013

Andy Murray wins Wimbledon final

Looking at the scorecard – a 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 win over world No. 1 Novak Djokovic – you might think that he did it the easy way. Three sets. No tie breaks. What could be simpler?

Yet in all probability you watched at least some of the match – early reports suggest that more than 20 million people did – and if so you will appreciate that it was an intense trial of nerve, skill and physical resilience. The final game, which swung this way and that like a hammock in a hurricane, contained as much tension as many a five-setter.

“Winning Wimbledon is the pinnacle of tennis,” said a softly spoken and still slightly bemused Andy Murray afterwards. “The last game almost increased that feeling. My head was kind of everywhere. I mean, some of the shots he came up with were unbelievable. Mentally, that last game will be the toughest game I'll play in my career.”

Everyone on Centre Court knew Djokovic’s reputation for bouncing back from lost causes. So even when Murray led by a two sets and a break, it never felt comfortable. Perhaps that was a good thing, because the anxious fans kept urging their man on, and played a full part in this historic occasion.

When Murray fizzed down an ace to secure the second set, they gave him a standing ovation. When that crazy final game entered a labyrinthine sequence of tit-for-tat winners, they kept Murray going by chanting his name.

Murray had come into the tournament pleading for a little more home bias around the elegantly landscaped grounds of Wimbledon. While the influence of the fans is hard to quantify, he definitely feeds off their energy.

“The atmosphere was incredible for him,” said Djokovic afterwards. “For me not so much.” After a gracious acceptance of Murray’s superiority, he also admitted that “I wasn’t patient enough – there were many points where I should have waited for a better opportunity.”

The trouble, from Djokovic’s perspective, was that he was getting so little change in the long, almost drill-like baseline rallies that made up the majority of the points. Murray was showing no holes in his defence as he lunged out wide for the forehand and then rushed across to play the defensive slice on the backhand side. The quality of that slice backhand, more than any other, was the difference between the players.

The first point of the match set the tone: a 20-shot rally in which both players were shuttling so smoothly from side to side that they could have been on rails. As the sun beat down on the hottest day of the year, Murray’s saturated shirt was soon clinging to his body. Between points, he was slumping his shoulders and almost staggering back to his starting position like a puppet with faulty strings. But then, as soon as the ball toss went up, he skipped back onto his toes and started floating over the turf again.

Murray endured a couple of wobbly moments on his serve in the first set. With the sun right in his eyes, he sent down successive double-faults at the start of one game. But he took control with a sequence of five successive clean winners – an ace, a smash, a forehand and two backhands – that emphasised just how complete his game has become.

“The story of my career is that I had a lot of tough losses,” he said afterwards, “but the one thing I would say is that every year I always improved a little bit. They weren't major improvements, massive changes, but every year my ranking was going in the right direction.”

As the spectators fanned themselves furiously in this ever more torrid atmosphere, Murray dropped behind early in the second set. Feeling the urgency of his plight, Djokovic worked his counter-intuitive magic and became more assertive, more self-confident. Up in the player’s box, Ivan Lendl was slumping lower and lower in his seat, shielding himself behind the balcony wall like a man hiding behind the sofa.

The match was already moving past the duration of the women’s final – 81 minutes – yet it felt like we were still in the first act. On Twitter, a watching Andy Roddick warned that “These guys are killing each other … they won’t be able to stand if they play five [sets].”

Had the first two sets been split, it would have been ominous – for Murray lost the Australian Open final in January in exactly that scenario. Djokovic is built like a road-runner, so lean and efficient that he seems to grow stronger the longer a match goes on.

But grass-court tennis favours attackers over defenders, and Djokovic was struggling to bring his endurance into play. He wanted to establish the retrieving rhythm he found against Juan Martin del Potro in Friday’s semi-final, where he slides into his wide shots and keeps getting one more ball back until his opponent self-destructs. But Murray was just too clinical, and those desperate lunges were finding only air.

As that crucial second set drew to a close, Djokovic’s equanimity was disturbed by a series of close calls that went against him. He used up all his Hawk-Eye challenges and then started laying into Mohamed Lahyani, the chair umpire, when another Murray slice caught the tiniest sliver of the back of the line. To the line judges’ credit, this was a superbly officiated final and there was only one clear error in the whole match.

While Djokovic raged, Murray pounced, reeling off a sequence of eight games out of nine that carried him to 2-0 up in the third set. On the BBC’s broadcast, Andrew Castle was convinced that Djokovic’s focus had evaporated. “I’m getting excited!” cried Boris Becker, having hitched his colours to the British flag for the day.

Yet Djokovic has never been known to go quietly. Flicking through his vast database of options, he found one tactic he had yet to try – the drop shot. And he played it again and again for the next few games, like a golfer reduced to taking an iron off the tee because his driver is spraying the ball everywhere. The surprising thing was that it worked, at least for a while. Djokovic was out-Murraying Murray with these little deft touches, and Murray’s legs looked heavier and heavier as he now had to move forward and back as well as side to side.

What to do? On the sixth or seventh time of asking, Murray took a leaf from Lendl’s book and drove the ball from close range at Djokovic’s throat – the throat of his racket, that is, from where it bounced harmlessly to the floor. That was the end of the drop-shots, and now Murray was closing in on his target with cold-eyed intensity.

As he served for the match, Murray maintained his mastery of that awkward yellow ball through everything that Djokovic threw at him. It would have been so easy to slip back from the brink at that moment, as the first three match points evaded him. But he kept the faith, rushing boldly to the net wherever possible.

Finally, Djokovic netted a backhand on the fourth match point. The 77-year-wait was over, and Murray bounced around the back of the court with his teeth gritted in a grimace of delight. His greatest moment was also one of his hardest-won, which is exactly as it should be. That curly-headed 18-year-old had fulfilled his destiny.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Justin Rose wins US Open

Justin Rose clinched his maiden major title to become the first Englishman for 43 years to win the US Open.

The 32-year-old won by two shots from now six-time runner-up Phil Mickelson and Jason Day on a gripping final day.

Rose, also the first Englishman to win a major since Nick Faldo in 1996, fired a level-par 70 to end one over as overnight leader Mickelson carded 74.

Australian Day took 71 as England's Luke Donald (75) collapsed to six over on the treacherous Merion course.

Rose, the world number five, looked up to the sky with tears in his eyes after he tapped in his final par putt, and admitted later to thinking of his father and long-time mentor Ken, who died from leukaemia in 2002.

Mickelson, celebrating his 43rd birthday, needed to birdie the last to force an 18-hole play-off on Monday, but the four-time major champion could only make a bogey five.

"It wasn't lost on me that today was Father's Day," said Rose of his gesture when he was presented with the trophy on the 18th green.

"A lot of us come from great men and we have a responsibility to our children to show what a great man can be.

"For it to all just work out for me, on such an emotional day, I couldn't help but look up to the heavens and think that my old dad Ken had something do do with it."

Rose, who was born in Johannesburg but brought up in Hampshire, burst onto the wider scene as a 17-year-old amateur when he finished in a tie for fourth in the 1998 Open at Royal Birkdale.

He went on to miss 21 consecutive cuts when he joined the paid ranks, before winning his first professional event in 2002. His biggest victory to date was the WGC Cadillac Championship last March.

Rose's previous best major finish was tied-third in the US PGA behind Rory McIlroy last year, while he has had six other top-10s in majors.

He becomes the third UK winner of the title in four years after Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy (2011) and Graeme McDowell (2010).

The last Englishman to lift the US Open was Tony Jacklin, who won by seven shots at Hazeltine, Minnesota, in 1970. Five other Englishmen won the US Open pre-war, while a host of Scotsmen won early editions of the event.

Rose first hit the front at the eighth hole as the lead changed hands countless times on a tumultuous final day.

Mickelson was seemingly finished after two double bogeys in his first five holes, but the mercurial home favourite holed his second shot for an eagle at the 10th to regain top spot and reignite his challenge.

The pair duelled down the notorious final stretch - with Hunter Mahan also sharing the lead at one point - but Mickelson was unable to avenge his Ryder Cup singles defeat by Rose last year and clinch a first US Open title.

"For me, it's very heart-breaking," said Mickelson, who had previously finished second at the event in 1999, 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2009. "This was my best chance on a golf course I really liked. I felt like this was as good an opportunity as you could ask for and to not do it hurts."

Former world number one Donald, who played alongside Rose, fell away early with three straight bogeys from the third and then a double bogey on the sixth.

Open champion Ernie Els (69) and Americans Jason Dufner (67), Hunter Mahan (75) and Billy Horschel (74) ended tied-fourth.

World number one Tiger Woods's challenge was already over before the final round and he ended 13 over after a 74, while second-ranked McIlroy took 76 for 14 over.

"I did a lot of things right. Unfortunately I did a few things wrong, as well," said Woods, chasing a 15th major title and first since 2008. "I struggled with the speed (of the greens) all week."