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Great Expectations

DEUCE

Andy Murray© Getty ImagesAndy Murray carries the weight of British hopes.

Breaking Britain’s title drought at Wimbledon is a tough assignment in itself; when you’re also going up against Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, it seems like an insurmountable challenge. Unless you’re Andy Murray.

The British public’s expectation will be a bit different at Wimbledon this year. To be exact, they lived in hope rather than expectation when Tim Henman was playing. Now they can uncross their fingers and toes and stop holding their breath because Andy Murray is promising to make Wimbledon a pleasurable experience again for British fans and, dare one say, a successful one.

Although Murray is just as capable of taking British fans on a rollercoaster ride, he rarely ever drives them over the edge. No matter how desperate things get, he always seems to be in control. Tiger Tim played a riskier game that earned him an enviable Wimbledon record of four semi-final and four quarter-final appearances, but that never fully sated the British appetite for a homegrown champion.

A counter-puncher like Murray may never match the sheer exhilaration of Henman’s serve-and-volley game, but he may win Wimbledon. And that is because the young Scot has something that Henman did not – the killer instinct. It’s a quality Murray has in common with Fred Perry, the last Briton to win the Wimbledon men’s singles title and whose brand he appropriately now promotes. “I was always a believer in stamping on my opponent if I got him down, at Wimbledon or anywhere else,” said Perry once. “I never wanted to give him the chance to get up.”

Another thing Henman did extraordinarily well was handle the ridiculous pressure at Wimbledon each year and Murray looks capable of doing the same. Of course, this isn’t the first year that the 22 year old has represented the sum of British hopes in the men’s singles. He carried the flag last year, all the way to the quarter-finals. The difference is no-one really expected the then World No. 11 to win Wimbledon. This year, they do.

In fact, after reaching his first Grand Slam final, in New York, winning three ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles (from four finals) and four additional ATP World Tour titles in the intervening 11 months, Murray is now expected by British fans to win every tournament he enters. Since going out in the third round of Roland Garros last year, Murray has made the quarter-finals or better in 17 of the 20 events he has played – and a rod for his back in the process.

“Anyone who watches sport will understand you can’t win every single match,” Murray tells DEUCE. “Unfortunately, in tennis there are no draws – even Manchester United have probably lost five or six games out of something like 60 this season. I’ll try my best at Wimbledon and I’ll have a decent shot if I play well, but I won’t view it as a failure if I don’t win it.

“I think I’m closer than I was a year ago – obviously the US Open was a good indicator of that. It might take time, but too bad. It’s not an easy thing to do and I’ve got maybe the two best players of all time playing just now. You’re probably going to have to beat one of them – maybe both of them – if you want to win a slam.”

The double act of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer has held centre stage on Centre Court for the past three years, but that doesn’t automatically mean an extension to Britain’s 73-year wait for a Wimbledon men’s singles champion. Murray hardly lives in fear of facing either player on grass - or any other surface. Initially, it may have appeared so in the case of the World No. 1, as Nadal racked up a 5-0 lead in their head-to-heads, but since then Murray has won three of their past five meetings.

As for Federer, while Murray has enormous respect for the great man, he has never - not even at their first meeting when he was 18 - been in awe of him. Murray had a couple of bad injuries when he was younger and spent a lot of his spare time watching Federer’s matches. He came to the conclusion that the best way of playing Federer was just to be solid and not to try to do anything extraordinary on every point, as most of his opponents seemed to do. His game plan has obviously worked because he holds a 7-2 advantage against the Swiss, which is even more emphatic than that of Nadal, who leads Federer 13-7 in their celebrated duel.

“Obviously I’d love to win Wimbledon, but I think my best surface is hard and my results would prove that so I would expect if it did happen it would be at the US Open or Australian Open, but you never know. Grass is a bit unpredictable and a lot can depend on draws and someone like a [Ivo] Karlovic serving huge against Nadal or Federer early in the tournament, which could open things up.

“Then there are guys like [Jo-Wilfried] Tsonga who have big games. A lot could depend on how the grass is playing, too. If it plays slower, even someone like [Fernando] Gonzalez can be dangerous. Novak [Djokovic] has played well on grass. Also, we don’t know how the roof is going to affect the speed of the grass. There’s going to be a lot of interesting things happening during the tournament.”

For all that, winning a slam could be easier than reaching No. 1 in the South African Airways 2009 ATP Rankings. Not that he would say so, but one senses that Murray is confident of overtaking Federer this year. Nadal, however, is a different proposition. He knows he needs to improve his clay-court game considerably if he is to give himself a chance of doing so. It would be easier stepping into a bull ring armed with nothing more than a racquet than take a clay-court title away from Nadal, but after the way Murray charged back at the Mallorcan in the second set of their semi-final at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters in April, it did make one wonder.

“Clay is a tough surface, especially if you don’t grow up playing on it. You have to learn as you go along. After the French Open I didn’t play again on it until Monte-Carlo this year, so it’s pretty much 11 months of the year that I don’t hit a ball on clay. Consequently, throughout this year I might have the odd three, four-day practice on it. This is where someone like Rafa gets a huge number of points and if I want to catch him in the Rankings I need to play better on clay.”

Murray needs look no further than the Spaniard for his inspiration. If a clay courter like Nadal can turn his hand to grass, why shouldn’t Murray, who spent a couple of years on the red stuff at the Emilio Sanchez academy in Barcelona, make the transition in the opposite direction? Not that Murray’s a grass-court specialist just yet, but according to Henman he will achieve great things on the surface.

If Murray does win Wimbledon one day no-one will be more envious of him than the former British No. 1, who tried longer and harder than anyone to lay his hands on the holy grail. Finding himself usurped by a younger man cannot have been easy for Henman. When he lost their first encounter in 2005 all the talk about a changing of the guard had clearly begun to grate with him. “I've handed on the torch. Or is it the baton? Whatever it is, I've passed it on,” he said a trifle tartly.

However, since retiring, Henman has been nothing less than fulsome in his praise of the young man. “Andy is going to go on to achieve bigger and better things than I ever did, and I'm really pleased for him,” he said recently. “There is no doubt in my mind that he'll win multiple Grand Slams, including Wimbledon.”

You see, even Henman expects him to win.

  
 

 

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