Andy Murray struggles to find sense of equilibrium before tipping the scales

Wimbledon - All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club

Weird scenes, these.

As Andy Murray was walking on to Centre Court for his quarter-final, hundreds of fans were walking off it, down the gangways and out of the exits, eager to stretch their legs and catch their breath after the five-set, three-hour epic between Roger Federer and Marin Cilic.

So Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga received a half-hearted sort of welcome from the rump of a satiated crowd, their appetite for the match ahead overwhelmed by their exhaustion after the one just gone.

And the buzz as Murray and Tsonga knocked up felt more like an echo of the roars sounding out 10 minutes before than an expression of anticipation. They then played the first few games of the first set in a half-empty stadium. Murray cannot often, or ever, have seen so many empty seats when he has been on Centre Court. It was an odd sight and must have been an unusual sensation.

It is not the only one Murray has been feeling. This is his 11th Wimbledon, so you would think there would be few new things left for him to experience. But in fact it is all a little different this time. This was Murray’s ninth consecutive appearance in the quarter-finals, a run that stretches back to 2008, and he is getting up towards the Wimbledon record in the Open era. He is now equal with Pete Sampras and behind only Roger Federer and Jimmy Connors on that particular list. But in all those years, across all those matches, Murray had never once been the top-ranked player left in the last eight or the outright favourite to win the title. One, the other or all of Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal have always been in the quarter-final draw alongside him, and one, the other or all of them, have always been seeded above him.

John McEnroe reckons it is the first time Murray has started the second week as the favourite in any major, never mind Wimbledon. Whatever extra stress Murray was feeling, he insisted it was nothing compared to what he suffered here in 2013. “You can’t compare the pressure this year to when I played Novak a few years ago,” he said before this match. True enough. But it is also fair to say that with Djokovic out, the dynamic of the tournament is different. And for Murray it means that for the first time in his life he has been the frontrunner from the fourth round onwards. It was not a matter of hope this year but expectation, his own and everyone else’s. It was a new and unusual feeling for British fans, accustomed by old habit to supporting an underdog.

And it must also have been, to some degree, for Murray himself. Athletes often take such comfort from the familiarity of their routines – Murray uses the same practice court each day, eats the same snack after each match and has one of the same three things, chicken, steak or salmon, for supper each night during the tournament – that even a slight shift can throw out their sense of equilibrium. Murray certainly seemed a little less sure-footed while he was playing John Millman in the third round after news of Djokovic’s defeat filtered through to him on Centre Court.

Even a little disturbance can cause larger problems, like the speck of dust which flew into Murray’s right eye early in the first set, which he spent the next 10 minutes dabbing at. Whether it was the dust, the lack of atmosphere or just the long wait while Federer played, he seemed distracted and it took him time to settle. And though he was gifted a break point when Tsonga double-faulted, he was broken back soon after.

By then the crowd had swelled, fans pouring in such a flood that the umpire told them to sit in the nearest empty chair and then find their way to the correct seats at the next break in play. They were just in time. At 6-6, Murray found himself fighting his first tie-break of the tournament. It made for 20 minutes of brilliant back and forth, the highlight Murray’s astonishing sprint to make an impossible forehand pass at 10-10.

Murray sealed the tie-break 12-10 with a backhand volley. It was a repeat of the scoreline in their similarly entertaining tie-break in the second set during their singles Davis Cup match last July. Then, as now, Murray strolled the next set. But where that won him the match, this put him only 2-0 up, and in the third set Tsonga came back. Agonising as Murray’s eventual victory was to watch, things are likely to get tighter and tenser still for him and his fans in the days ahead. We, and he, will learn more about how he handles life as the tournament favourite. Only one thing seems certain, he surely will not have to play in front of any more empty seats on Centre Court again.

Powered by article was written by Andy Bull at Wimbledon, for The Guardian on Wednesday 6th July 2016 21.25 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010