In the past week the ground has twice shifted beneath Andy Murray’s feet.
The first time was last Saturday, when Sam Querrey knocked out Novak Djokovic. The second on Friday, when Milos Raonic did likewise to Roger Federer. This is Murray’s 42nd grand slam, his 20th semi, and will be his 11th final.
But it is the very first in which he has not had one or more of Djokovic, Federer or Rafa Nadal between him and victory. In 17 of the 23 grand slams he has played since 2010, Murray was beaten by one of those three. Two of the others, he won as an underdog.
Now, for the first time in his life, Murray is the clear favourite. Which could play out one of two ways. Either he will relish the opportunity, or be so anxious to grab it that he ends up letting it slip.
You never know how you will handle the pressure until it comes down on your head. But in the three games he has played in the past six days, Murray has given a clear idea that it suits him just fine. You could see it in the way he shut out Nick Kyrgios in straight sets on Monday, and again when he fought his way through a fifth set against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Wednesday, and most especially on Friday, when he hammered Tomas Berdych in straight sets, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, in two minutes under two hours of play.
Berdych, still bruised, touched on it when he came off court. “I think he can [win],” Berdych said. “Definitely he can. The fact that probably his biggest rival, Novak, is not in the draw any more definitely helps him. I think he has all the tools to make it.”
For the second time in three days, Murray found himself following Federer on to Centre Court after a five-set epic. So again, then, Murray had the unusual experience of playing the first few games in front of a lot of empty seats. But where the atmosphere had felt a little flat during the first set of his quarter-final against Tsonga, this time those who had stayed behind were alive with anticipation.
Murray was already fancied to win the title, but with Federer out the odds had just been chopped again. Now, for the first time in living memory, the crowd on Centre Court found itself supporting a home player who was an overwhelming favourite to win the championship. An alien sensation for them, then, as it was for the man himself.
They and he soon seemed to grow used to it. There were no jokes from the crowd, no cries of “C’mon Tim”, or chortles when someone popped a champagne cork. Only earnest roars of support. Berdych reached the final here in 2010, and has been a fixture in the top 10 ever since.
But even he seemed to find it a little intimidating. “It’s a completely different story,” he said. “He’s playing at home with all the crowd support behind him.” Murray led him 8-6 in their head to head. But then Federer had an even better record, 9-2, against Raonic. So his defeat wasn’t only an opportunity for Murray, but a reminder that in this sport those stats do not always count, that you can take nothing for granted.
Not that Murray necessarily needed the extra incentive. There has been an edge to this rivalry ever since Berdych employed Murray’s old coach and friend, Dani Vallverdu. Before that Berdych had also tried to hire Murray’s current coach, Ivan Lendl.
Things boiled over in their memorable match in the semi-finals of the Australian Open last year when Murray reported Berdych to the umpire, and Kim, his fiancee at the time, swore a blue streak, after Berdych won the first set tie-break. Murray went on to win that match 6-7, 6-0, 6-3, 7-5. And he has now beaten Berdych again in all of the matches they have played since: in Miami, Shanghai, and Madrid, all four victories in straight sets, and without the need for a single tie-break.
Murray has, of course, been quick and keen to downplay the press’s suggestions that there is any lingering animosity between the two men, who once considered themselves pretty close friends.
But there’s a suspicion that he was only being a diplomatic about it, and those who know suggest that there was no way in hell Murray was going to allow himself to lose to Berdych, least of all in a grand slam semi-final. And it said plenty that he made only nine unforced errors in the match.
He explained that he felt his experience told, that all those matches against Djokovic and Federer had put him in the best possible position to take advantage of their absence.
“Having had those experiences in the past has helped me a lot, playing against some of the best players of all time.” It seems he has been waiting for this chance.
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