For the first time since 1938, when television was in its infancy and radio commentary was still broadcast with crackle and static, a British player will be competing in the men’s singles final at Wimbledon.
That fact, coupled with Roger Federer, the legendary winner of 16 Grand Slam titles, on the other side of the net will ensure that Sunday’s match will be the most publicized, reported and followed in the history of the Wimbledon Championships.
Interest is so intense that several national newspapers in Britain led Page 1 with Andy Murray’s semifinal victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and tickets are reported to be selling for nearly $20,000 on the black market. Even with England playing Australia at cricket, the Formula One Grand Prix at Silverstone and the Olympics in only a few weeks, Britain is gripped by Murraymania.
Given the wall-to-wall coverage and seemingly endless hype, Murray has been calling on his Scottish stoicism to handle the hopes and demands of the nation but has admitted that "subconsciously, I am probably pretty stressed out."
That Murray kept his emotions under control during the dramatic latter stages of his match against Tsonga can be attributed, at least in part, to the presence of Ivan Lendl as the new addition to his entourage. Since they teamed up in Florida at the beginning of the year, Murray has cut out much of the on-court moaning and groaning that used to punctuate his matches.
He knows Lendl won’t put up with any displays of negativity. Critics were beginning to wonder, during a lackluster clay-court season, just how Lendl had improved Murray’s game. Now we are beginning to find out. Having a man who appeared in eight consecutive US Open finals — a record that neatly matches Federer’s eight finals appearances at Wimbledon — has clearly helped Murray’s confidence, but there is more.
Technical improvements have emerged at Wimbledon that have had a significant effect on Murray’s performance. He has served consistently well, not just with his big first serve but with the second, which used to be regarded as the prime weakness in his game. He has been enjoying a success ratio on second serves of 65 percent — way above his norm of little more than 50 percent.
"I have actually been hitting fewer serves in practice," he said. "Ivan thinks it is best to rest the arm and shoulder and avoid any strain on muscles and ligaments. So the fatigue factor is improved."
Murray’s willingness to use the second serve as a weapon emerged at a crucial moment in the fourth set against Tsonga when he found himself trailing 15-30 at 4-4. Instead of playing safe, Murray hit a 98-mph delivery out wide and caught Tsonga on the hop. It was not something the Scot would have done a few months ago.
So Federer will be facing an improved Murray, which is not a very happy prospect for a man who has lost to the Scot eight times in 15 meetings. That record proves Murray knows how to beat Federer, but Swiss supporters will rightly point to the fact that none of Andy’s victories have come in Grand Slams.
Murray has played in three Slam finals — losing to Federer at the 2008 US Open and to Federer and Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open in 2010 and 2011, respectively. But Mats Wilander, winner of three Slams in 1988, believes Murray should forget those experiences.
"Andy didn’t win a set in any of those finals," Wilander said. "He can’t go into this match thinking, ‘I’ve got to win a set,’ as if that would be some sort of achievement. If he has that attitude, he will lose. Winning the match must be his only focus."
For Federer, nothing less than victory will do. He has the added incentive of knowing the title will go hand-in-hand with a return to the No. 1 ranking — a goal many experts have been insisting was beyond him for the past two years. Federer will have derived plenty of confidence from his streamlined performances over the past few days, particularly the way he demolished Novak Djokovic, the defending champion in the semifinal.
But Boris Becker issued a warning.
"You’re always nervous playing a big final, and contrary to what some people think, it’s harder to deal with your nerves as you get older because you know there might not be too many more opportunities out there."
Being a realist, Federer, who turns 31 next month, knows just how difficult it is going to be to beat Murray.
"I know how good Andy is," Federer said. "I remember the losses I’ve had against him, particularly in finals — in Shanghai, where he crushed me, and in Toronto. But it’s going to be interesting because we haven’t played each other very often lately."
In fact, they have played only once since 2010 — this year on hard courts in Dubai, where Federer won 7-5, 6-4. But that will have little relevance to what happens in front of a Centre Court peopled with frenzied Murray supporters willing their man to write history.
If he can win, Murray will supersede Fred Perry, a three-time winner in the 1930s, as the home country’s very own champion.
I commentated with Perry on the BBC Radio for several years before his death in 1994, and I know Fred would approve of Murray. Perry was a tough, single-minded competitor — an individualist who strode down his own path in life. Murray shares some of those qualities, and he has the talent to back them up. Whether he can bring it all together to clear the final hurdle will depend not just on him but on the vastly experienced man across the net.
It promises to be a riveting contest, but I believe the outcome will be determined by something quite straight forward: The man who serves best on the big points will win.