Back in the bad old days of British tennis, the crowd at Wimbledon had one job: to cheer for their lucky loser with the kind of optimism that defied all known laws of reality. But these days, being a home fan at the championships requires a greater level of nuance.
It was hard for the Centre Court crowd to know where they stood at 8pm on Saturday. Their hero, who had cruised so easily past Robin Haase in his previous match, was now proceeding equally smoothly against Andreas Seppi. There was no need for panic, or the mad encouragement they usually dish out to the home talent. A calm but earnest approval seemed the right tone to take.
The hush of serious endeavour hung about the place. And when Murray got a challenge completely wrong in the second set, and the ball was shown on the big screen to be well within the line, they felt they could afford to laugh. He was 6-2 up, after all. For two sets, Centre Court was entirely devoid of the nerve-biting tension that has traditionally accompanied Murray’s Wimbledon appearances.
A row of men in pink T-shirts spelling out “#MURY!” – the other “R” and “A” were presumably, still stuck in the queue – worked hard to start a Mexican wave, and were rewarded with the sight of the royal box joining in. Seppi took a medical time out. Then Murray lost the third set. In the royal box, Justin Rose looked concerned; Geoffrey Boycott looked as if he’d like to have words with someone. The crowd looked genuinely confused. Had they, like their hero, been guilty of complacency?
Still, if there’s one thing the Wimbledon faithful thrive on, it’s jeopardy. An hour earlier, it had required James Ward to go a set down before the No1 Court crowd remembered its place and revved itself into the Englishman’s personal pep rally. Although, to be fair, the first set had been extremely dull. Murray has made great fun of his hitting partner’s love of Taylor Swift, and if you were picking one of her tracks to describe the opening of this match, it would have been Blank Space rather than Style.
“C’mon James, just go for it,” yelled an avuncular voice, and Ward responded by winning the first three games of the second set in a row. The tennis was rarely scintillating – mostly, the pair bullied the ball back and forth from the baseline – but it made the odd unexpected thrill all the more enjoyable. There was a 20-stroke rally in which Ward launched a lob that threatened a passing Airbus; and a 30-stroke one that the crowd celebrated too early when he dispatched a forehand down the line. He took both points – each time, the crowd stood to applaud as if he’d just won the match itself.
But there were plenty of mishits too, when Ward’s forehand went on the fritz. The crowd was obliged, by dint of its partisan nature, to respond sympathetically to these ugly shots, to “ooh” when they were hit thickly outside the lines, and to “aah” when they dribbled thinly into the net. The murmured sighs that escaped when a Ward return ballooned up in the air, with a rampant Vasek Pospisil primed to dispatch it, was the collective sound of parents watching their child trip over its shoelaces.
Out on the hill the atmosphere remained relaxed rather than rapt, especially when Pospisil started taking control of the match. No one out there, among the scotch eggs and the cider, was living or dying with every point. It felt as if a Ward win was to be considered a bonus, rather than a desperate necessity. Poor Ward lost the fifth set 8-6. Mr Pospisil, why d’you have to be so mean?
The hill gathered fresh interest when the screen switched to the Murray match. A few Scots pulled out the tartan caps they had been saving for the occasion. When things started going south, Murray double-faulted and kicked the ball away in anger. A Scottish voice yelled out in approval: “Get a bit sweary, Andy!”
They knew what he needed. Back on Centre Court, it was as if someone had changed the battery – the place lit up with a new passion. Sudden bursts of noise now accompanied the close of every point and Murray responded with fire, his forehands whipping around the court with renewed speed. He opened his throat wide and roared, and the crowd roared back. He served an ace, and they roared again.
The space itself seemed to warp and bend at the intensity. “I tried to use that positive energy on the court,” he said after his victory. “I finished the match how hopefully I can go on.” Murray was back to what he knew – and so was the crowd.
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