The tennis gods teased Andy Murray, Marin Cilic and 7,000 spectators of similar patience with more variable weather at Queen's on Sunday before the sun cracked the gloom and the world No2 finally got on court to win his third Aegon title, confirming his form and, more importantly, his fitness before Wimbledon.
To cap a sun-blessed evening Murray donated his £75,000 prize money to the Rally Against Cancer charity for the Royal Marsden hospital, where his long-time friend Ross Hutchins, the doubles specialist, completed his chemotherapy treatment on Thursday. Hutchins hopes to return to tennis later this year. And patrons who witnessed Murray's victory over Cilic, as well as an exhibition match afterwards, chipped in with another £140,000; it hardly seemed possible to generate more good karma before Murray's bid for a second grand slam title in the showpiece tennis event of the year.
For stretches of the two hours and 33 minutes the final lasted the US Open champion did not dominate Cilic as he has done in most of his eight wins in their previous nine contests. However, in winning his first tournament back after a month out with an injured back, he was as commanding and intense at the finish as if this were a grand slam final, which shows not only that he has the extra gears to get out of tight corners but that his body is again strong enough to employ them.
The rain, which hovered annoyingly until late afternoon, was more pesky than biblical, and the sunshine was glorious when Murray sealed the match 5-7, 7-5, 6-3.
Murray broke the tall Croat in the second game of a match that began under ugly skies three and a half hours after the scheduled noon start and, from that point until the finish he raced through his repertoire as if expecting an ark to float by at any minute, not always judiciously, not always to his satisfaction.
When the court dried, his speed and flexibility were back to near their best. So was his mood and he could hardly have looked happier than when he tossed his wrist bands into the crowd to celebrate a win that will set him up nicely to make another charge at Wimbledon, where he made the final last year as well as winning an Olympic gold medal. He will go there believing rather than hoping he can win. That is the level of his expectations now, not just forcing himself into contention, and this is probably a more important summer for him than was his breakthrough season of 2012.
There were minor concerns on Sunday, such as his faltering backhand down the line, one of his favourite shots, and his uncertain service game. At times, too, Murray let his frustrations get to him as he searched for consistency in his ground strokes in the early to middle parts of the match. He brought gasps of anxiety from the gallery and his team when he slipped on the greasy grass in the first set but there was no collateral damage and he moved with measured freedom thereafter.
"It's a bit sore in the groin area," he said later. "Thankfully, it wasn't too bad."
As for his enforced rehab after aggravating his chronic lower back pain in Rome last month, he said: "I worked very hard in the time I had off to get myself back into the best shape possible."
After a brief rest Murray returned to the court for the charity doubles bash, partnering Tim Henman against his coach, Ivan Lendl, and another Czech, Tomas Berdych. "My best friend over there, Ross Hutchins, was diagnosed with cancer about six months ago," Murray said, struggling to contain his tears before the exhibition match. "He has dealt with it so well, so brave."
The laddish romp featured a promised Murray smash into Lendl's corpulent midriff and was a light-hearted conclusion to a tournament that has squelched its way to the final day. Murray was coy about his donation.
"Most of the time I have done stuff for charity I don't say too much about it just because I don't think it looks great," he said. "I haven't said anything to [Ross] about it."
Clearly, however, he drew satisfaction from winning his third title here on the eve of Wimbledon as well as raising money for the cancer charity. "They're great for different reasons," he said. "The second match was a lot of fun and raised a lot of money for a really good cause."
As for the serious tennis business that went before, Murray had reason to smile after coming through a sometimes awkward examination. "He's one of the best grass-court players in the world," Murray said of the No5 seed. "Me and Marin, we have played against each other since juniors and we have a lot of close matches. I was lucky to come through in the end because he was playing great tennis, especially towards the end of the second set, and I got a little bit lucky at the end of that set."
There was very little luck attached to the tennis of either player in the third set as they upped their levels appreciably. The final kill was quicker than Cilic, certainly, or the crowd expected. What had been up until that moment a close, hard-to-call contest was transformed, most dramatically when Cilic pushed a forehand cross-court wide to hand Murray a break and a 3-1 lead.
Cilic looked spent when he rammed an overhead smash into the net in the sixth game and then Murray produced the shot of the match, scampering across the baseline, bending low and somehow scooping up a backhand that scorched the grass on the other side of the court.
Serving to stay in the match at 2-5, Cilic gave Murray match point with his sixth double fault but the Scot wasted it with a sloppy backhand. There were no slip-ups on his serve, however, and he finished it off by forcing Cilic to push a backhand into the net.
"I feel good," Murray said. "I'm a bit tired. Because of the weather it's been mentally a quite draining week. I'll probably take a day off tomorrow and start hitting on Tuesday, quite light, and get myself fresh, work on a couple of things in the build-up to Wimbledon."
He will do so in the best possible frame of mind.
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image: © Ian Dick