Heading into this year's U.S. Open, no one questioned Andy Murray's failure to win a Grand Slam more than Murray himself.
He, too, had his doubts.
Four losses in four previous Grand Slam finals will do that to a player, especially a perennial bridesmaid expected to end Britain's 76-year drought in men's singles.
What Murray possessed in talent, he lacked in belief.
But that all changed Monday night with a monumental 7-6 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2 victory over defending champion Novak Djokovic in the final of the U.S. Open -- the first major title for the dour racqueteer from Dunblane and a long time coming.
"I have been reminded of that most days of my life for the last few years," Murray said. "It's great to have finally done it and I don't need to get asked that anymore."
Murray admitted afterward that winning Olympic gold on home soil last month helped to ease "doubts about myself and my place in the game."
To ease doubts is one thing. To prove he truly belonged among the game's elite, Murray knew he had to erase them at Flushing Meadows.
"You're still thinking, 'If I lose this one, you know, no one has ever lost their first five [Grand Slam] finals," he said. "I just didn't really want to be that person."
Watching from the stands was coach Ivan Lendl, as stoic and impassive as ever, yet mindful that, like him, Murray won his first Grand Slam on the fifth try. Lendl, once the poster boy for the proverb 'If at first you don't succeed, try, try again,' went on to win eight majors.
Adding to the unique synergy between coach and player is that Murray's marathon win over uber-fit Djokovic took four hours 54 minutes, tying the Open record for a final set by Mats Wilander in 1988 over none other than Lendl.
"I think we're learning a bit from Lendl," Murray remarked. "He doesn't smile a lot."
"Smiles are overrated," Lendl replied, straight-faced.
'Taking this game to another level'
For years, men's tennis has, for the most part, been the exclusive domain of the Big Three with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic hoarding Grand Slam titles and trading places on the ATP rankings podium -- and an unsmiling Murray esconsed in fourth.
Now it has four different Grand Slam champions in the same season for the first time since 2003. And for the first time, Murray is officially part of the mix. No sooner had Djokovic been dethroned as U.S. Open champion than he welcomed Murray into the fold by including him in the conversation.
"Us four, you know, we're taking this game to another level," Djokovic said. "Andy winning [Monday] makes it even more competitive and more interesting for people to watch."
Time to rename them the Big Four? The Fab Four?
Murray remained on the outside looking in when he narrowly lost this year's Wimbledon final in heart-wrenching fashion to Federer. It was a riveting match, the outcome of which restored Federer to world's No. 1 and reduced Murray to tears. The UK wept with him, and for him, and openly wondered whether he could summon resolve enough to compete for Olympic gold on the same lawn.
Murray not only competed, he won. And over Federer no less, denying the ageless wonder a single game for a full hour of the gold-medal match.
"For the the first time in a long time, [Federer] looked his age," John McEnroe said at the time.
'Made me improve so much'
As Federer looks to fend off Father Time, Murray looks to have levelled the playing field.
His inclusion is cemented with Monday's win over the dynamic Djokovic, who won the Australian Open but has gradually drifted back to Earth following a 2011 season in which he soared to unprecedented heights.
The oft-injured Nadal, the other obstacle in Murray's path to major success, won the French Open but of late is struggling to stay in one piece.
"I think playing against them has made me improve so much," Murray concluded. "You know, I always said that maybe if I played in another era, maybe I would've won more.
"But I wouldn't have been as a good a tennis player."
No doubt about it.
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