Harold Mahony’s whiskers would have been twitching madly up there in tennis heaven, the young buck Fred Perry by his side, no doubt, presuming you believe in ghosts – and who doesn’t when it comes to Wimbledon?
Perry has been the marquee spook for 77 years in these parts, Andy Murray spending his professional life with the old master a virtual presence on his shoulder for every minute of these two weeks in summer. Nobody remembers Mahony, but he was the last Scottish-born winner of this championship in 1896 when long trousers were the norm and Dunblane was more or less a field.
So it wasn’t just Perry’s history that Murray rewrote yesterday, it was Mahony’s, too. Under the searing sun, he burned his name into tennis history and did the seemingly undo-able; yes, he brought a smile to the face of his coach, Ivan Lendl. Wonder of wonders, there was a hint of happiness on the face of the watching Victoria Beckham, too. Truly Murray moved mountains.
This was as mad a day as there has ever been at Wimbledon, a raucous afternoon, a seismic final that was tennis’s equivalent of a heavyweight prize fight. Murray’s straight sets victory was a laugh-out-loud distortion of what went on out here. Straight sets wins can be routine affairs, but this was war in shorts.
The rallies were long, the hitting was monstrous. As Andy Roddick tweeted early on: “These guys are killing each other.” It was so attritional. They took 59 minutes to complete the first set and more than an hour to finish the second. That first set was toe-to-toe aggression, Murray earning ten break points on the Djokovic serve, the Serb six on Murray’s. Critically, it was Murray who found the shots to get himself out of trouble and had the mental strength to execute when chances fell his way.
So little separates these two twin giants of the game. Tiny margins. They had met in three grand slam finals before and two of them had gone to five sets. Many would have bet their mortgage on this going all the way, too. The notion that one or the other could dominate for three sets on the bounce would have been deemed laughable in the preamble. You’d have been accused of being in the sun too long had you even suggested it as a possibility.
When Djokovic raced into a 4-1 lead in the second set, the belief that this was going to be a long day – perhaps the longest day in the story of the men’s final – only hardened. The Serb was now revealing his killer side; hitting harder and deeper, setting the agenda in those long and savage rallies and threatening to get level in rapid order. Centre Court sensed a shifting in momentum. It was impossible to miss. But it was the kind of shift that, had you blinked, you would have missed it. For what Murray found thereafter was his greatness in microcosm. He broke Djokovic for 4-3, then survived a couple of break points on his own serve, then broke Djokovic for 6-5. Centre Court went ballistic. It was Hampden on a good day.
It was Glastonbury with the Stones on stage. It was an occasion that not only summoned memories of dead tennis icons, but could have woken them from their slumber given the noise in the place. Murray took the second amid delirious scenes. Djokovic had lost six of the previous seven games. Unheard of. This was something remarkable right enough.
A crusty old boy, who said he was ancient enough to count Perry as a friend, said he’d been coming here for more years that he would like to admit but that he’d never heard noise like it on Centre Court. It all left Murray as dazed as a punch-drunk slugger at the end. Even before the end, if truth be told. The last game of the match was one for the annals, a bare-knuckle ride that Murray later said was the hardest single game of his career, such was the physical exertion, the mind-blowing pressure, the refusal of Djokovic to go quietly and take his beating like a man instead of the machine that he really is.
Murray had broken the Serb to get himself into a 5-4 lead in the third, a giant leap towards greatness that had his crowd cheering insanely while gulping hard. He got to 40-0 on his own serve; three match points. At that moment, we looked to the clock to record the precise moment when history was going to be made. It was 5.16pm and the match had been going on for three hours and one minute. Then it was 5:17pm and three hours and two minutes, then 5:18pm, 5:19pm, 5:20pm. Three championship points had come and gone and now Murray faced a break point, which was saved; then another break point, saved; then another. Saved again. Murray was on auto-pilot, his memory of these moments as vague as a man who had played them with concussion, which, in a sense, he had. This was tennis brutality. “I worked so hard in that last game,” he said. “It’s the hardest few points I’ve had to play in my life. My head was kind of everywhere. Some of the shots he came up with were unbelievable. I maybe played one bad shot at deuce. I remember hitting a forehand into the net. I mean, the last 30 minutes are a bit of a blur. It was so hot out there.
“I hadn’t played any matches in the heat of the day. And I didn’t feel great after going from 40-love to deuce. Then I started feeling nervous and started thinking about what just happened. Very rarely will you get broken from 40-love on grass and when you’re serving for Wimbledon... At the end, the last game will be the toughest game I’ll ever play in my career. That’s why, at the end of the match, I didn’t quite know what was going on. Just a lot of different emotions at that time.”
At 5.24pm, Murray once again got himself a championship point and, after three hours and nine minutes, Perry lay in peace at last. The cries of “Andy! Andy! Andy!” rang around Centre Court as Dunblane’s finest wandered about in stunned disbelief. His family and coaches hugged and wept. In the Royal Box, Alex Salmond whipped a Saltire from a bag and waved it in a needless reminder to everybody – his Royal Box compatriot, David Cameron, included – that Murray is Scottish. There was no need to remind anybody. No need at all.
“I don’t know how it will change my life,” he said, later. “I hope not. I hope not too much.” During the press conference, he brought it all back home, back to Dunblane where people watched their boy in halls and pubs and living rooms. “I spoke to my grandparents on the phone just now,” he said. “They were watching the match at the local sports club, where I grew up playing. It was absolutely packed in there.”
It was packed everywhere. Murray’s following stretches far and wide now, right around the tennis world, which he now owns. Conqueror of the great Djovokic. Double grand slam champion. Wimbledon hero. No more ghosts here anymore. Just greatness.