First-time favorite Andy Murray comes through in Wimbledon final

LONDON -- For years, Andy Murray would whistle through the draws of majors, only to find a larger-than-life legend waiting for him in the final. Murray lost to Roger Federer in all three of their meetings in major finals and lost to Novak Djokovic in five of seven similar showdowns.

But Sunday's championship match here at the All England Club featured Murray and Milos Raonic, a 25-year-old Canadian playing in his first Grand Slam final.

In the critical moments -- and there were only a handful -- a slightly unsteady Raonic looked like he was, in fact, playing the most important match of his life. Murray, meanwhile, was masterful, winning 6-4, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (2).

Afterward, Murray stood on Centre Court, bent at the waist, head in hands. Minutes later, he was still sobbing in his changeover chair.

Sunday's match marked the first Grand Slam final in which Murray was the prohibitive favorite -- and in front of his home fans, no less. Now 29, he has grown into that legend who always seemed to stand in his way when the title was on the line.

"I'm proud to have my hands on the trophy," Murray said on court. "I played really good stuff today.

"[It's the] most important tournament for me every year. The wins feel extra special because of the losses."

It was the third Grand Slam singles title for Murray, his second at Wimbledon, but the first in three years. After losses on the final day in Melbourne and Paris this season, Murray avoided a third consecutive loss in a major final this year.

This was a hugely popular victory -- not just for the throng gathered on Henman Hill. Murray, a native of Scotland, has been embraced by even casual tennis fans in this country as one of their own.

After his breakthrough here in 2013, Murray was so emotionally spent he said he didn't really enjoy his feat in becoming the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years.

"It was just pure relief," Murray explained in his postmatch news conference. "Yes, it's different. I feel happier this time. I feel more content this time."

And don't discount the back surgery Murray underwent that fall. This was his fourth major final since that unnerving event, and the first time he's won.

Raonic gets credit for doing most of the heavy lifting coming in, beating the guy -- Sam Querrey -- who beat Djokovic in the quarterfinals and dispatching Federer in an emotional five-set semifinal match.

The coaches of the two finalists, winners of a combined 15 Grand Slam singles titles and once bitter rivals, were one of the leading plotlines in the London tabloids.

Ivan Lendl recently rejoined Murray with the goal of winning this tournament. John McEnroe was added to Raonic's team as a grass consultant for the same reason. Both succeeded in getting their charges to be more aggressive, especially in the service game, and to move forward when the openings presented themselves.

Murray was philosophical afterward, talking about learning from his previous losses and not being afraid of failing.

"I do feel like I'm able to, I don't know, play a more offensive game style now than when I was younger because I was so worried about the outcome," Murray said. "Maybe my game is a little more exciting when I go for shots that I wouldn't have when I was younger.

"I still feel my best tennis is ahead of me."

Raonic ultimately came to the net 74 times, winning 46 of the points. Murray, 17-for-22, was more judicious -- and efficient.

McEnroe, also under contract to provide analysis for ESPN and the BBC, did the BBC prematch show on Centre Court and called the match for ESPN.

"Milos Raonic is in this situation for the first time," McEnroe observed. "He has to go for it."

And while Raonic made every effort to serve big and come forward early and often, there was a spark missing. Perhaps he was still physically and mentally drained from that rousing, signature win against Federer.

"This one's going to sting," Raonic said afterward. "It's been a phenomenal two weeks at this tournament. I keep plugging away every single day. There's nothing I want more than to be back here."

This set the Royal Box, which was packed with the British aristocracy -- a seriously pro-Murray audience -- ablaze. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (William and Kate) were on hand, sans their children. Although the Duchess, attending Thursday, revealed that Prince George already has a tennis racket.

Prime Minister David Cameron and Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon were also there, along with actors Benedict Cumberbatch, Hugh Grant and Bradley Cooper. There were even some tennis players: Boris Becker, Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert.

At one point in the second set, Raonic, who the London tabloids dubbed "The Maple Missile," hit a 147 mph body serve -- and lost the point. He also hit a 124 mph second-serve ace. Murray has now won the past six matches between the two.

Murray still has the worst winning percentage in major finals in men's tennis history, at 3-8 (.273). The good news? Murray is inching closer to the 8-11 (.421) mark of his coach, Lendl. It's not a coincidence that Murray's three major titles have all come with Lendl in the coaching box.

This fortnight felt like a bracing blast of fresh air hit men's tennis at the All England Club. It was the first Wimbledon final in 14 years without either Federer, Djokovic or Rafael Nadal. Raonic was trying to become the youngest Wimbledon champion since the 24-year-old Djokovic won his first in 2011.

Along with Marin Cilic, Stan Wawrinka and a resurgent Juan Martin del Potro, Murray has been able to break through the Big Four wall, albeit sparingly. But this just might be the event that vaults Murray into the role of a legitimate rival for Djokovic.

Murray, who admitted he was "very" nervous before the match, said the role of favorite didn't feel all that different.

"No different from the other Slams, really," he said. "Just a different opponent on the other side, with different challenges, just like Roger and Novak.

"I think I handled it OK."

It appears he did.