Tennis

Murray fights way into semifinals

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Richard Evans

Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." Follow him on Twitter.

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WIMBLEDON, England

Every year at this time, Britain’s sporting public demands a performance out of Andy Murray. Maybe not the title-winning performance that has eluded every male British player since Fred Perry won Wimbledon in 1936, but the expectation is for an effort that at least quickens the pulse and offers hope.

Once again, Murray has delivered.

In a match befitting the game’s greatest stage, with Prince William and Duchess Kate Middleton sitting in the Royal Box next to Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, Murray on Wednesday battled back from a set and a break down to beat Spain’s David Ferrer 6-7 (5), 7-6 (6), 6-4, 7-6 (4) in 3 hours, 52 minutes.

And Murray indeed had to battle, because Ferrer, who seems to be getting better at age 30, gives you nothing. Unbeaten on grass in his past nine matches, including an ATP title in Holland, Ferrer faced Murray with confidence, and it showed as Ferrer controlled the first set with the depth of his ground strokes, his solid returns and, inevitably, with his running.

And when Murray put a drop shot an inch wide at break point down, four all in the second, the 5-foot-9 Spaniard was left to serve for a two-set lead. Only then did Ferrer look fallible. Three forehand errors spun off his racket, and a grateful Murray clawed his way back to 5-5.

In Murray’s box, his mother, Judy, looked fiercely defiant. His girlfriend, Kim Sears, was reduced to literally biting her nails, and coach Ivan Lendl remained as stonefaced as ever. None of that changed as Murray lost the first point of the tiebreaker with another bad drop shot that enabled Ferrer to score down the line, and soon the Scot trailed 5-2.

This was the moment for the true competitor to emerge.

Murray nicked the line with a forehand winner, served an ace, sent Ferrer all over court and forced an error — and, suddenly, it was 5-5. But the drama continued. Ferrer reached set point when Murray went wide, but it was saved by a big first serve. Another one followed, and, in a flash, Murray was at set point. The roof wasn’t open, but if it had been, it would have come off as the crowd screamed in support. And the noise was earsplitting when Murray controlled the rally and forced Ferrer to net a backhand.

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It had been a close call because a two-set deficit surely would have been too big a disadvantage. But, even though Ferrer had two break-point chances in the fourth game of the third set, the momentum was slowly shifting. And at 4-4, Murray scored with a glorious forehand crosscourt service return that set up break point. He grabbed it by forcing Ferrer to hit wide off his backhand. A game later, Murray had a two-sets-to-one lead.

Murray’s serve improved to such an extent that he rode it to three love games during the fourth, and, despite one blip when he had to recover from 40-15, he was starting to control the match and make Ferrer run even farther and faster in pursuit of his forehand.

The sun had shone for much of the afternoon, but then the showers returned and, at 5-5, the match was suspended.

“I was nervous that Andy would lose his service rhythm,” Lendl said as he went in search of dinner. “But he didn’t. He kept serving better as the match went on.”

Murray admitted the atmosphere was tense as he received a massage alongside Ferrer in the locker room during the delay.

“It’s never easy to stop at that stage of a big match and be in such close proximity to each other,” he said. “But I came out after the break and served really well. It was a difficult match, and I had expected a lot of long rallies.”

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He ended two of them in the fourth-set tiebreaker with huge forehand winners that propelled him into his fourth straight Wimbledon semifinal and made it six of the past seven Grand Slam events in which he has not lost before that stage.

Inevitably he was asked about the pressure that builds year after year as he keeps getting so close to the ultimate goal.

“I try to block it out by not reading the papers or listening to too much TV,” Murray said. “I have people I trust around me, and I just listen to them. Subconsciously, I’m probably extremely stressed out right now, but I’m able to keep it under control.”

Murray also said he was encouraged by LeBron James winning an NBA title this year.

“I’m a basketball fan,” he said, “and LeBron winning after getting so near so often gave me confidence to believe that I can do it, too.”

It seems that Murray, on paper, now has his best chance of reaching the final for the first time. He will play Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who defeated Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-2. Murray has a 5-1 record against Tsonga, who has served his way into that part of the draw vacated by Rafael Nadal.

Boris Becker is just one of the former champions here who believes Murray has a great opportunity.

“It was a good effort today,” Becker said. “I think I detected some of Lendl’s forehand in Murray’s play, and his second serve has gotten better, too, which is crucial.”

In the other semifinal, Roger Federer will play Novak Djokovic, who started slowly against another German, Florian Mayer, before winning with ease 6-4, 6-1, 6-4.

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