Tennis

Murray gives hope to gloomy Brits

Greg Couch gives an update on Wimbledon, including Andy Murray's five-set thriller.
Greg Couch gives an update on Wimbledon, including Andy Murray's five-set thriller.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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LONDON

It can be fun to laugh at the panic attacks that Britain has over Andy Murray. Fans want him to win soooo badly at Wimbledon, but they know he’s going to lose. They feel it in their bones. It drives them nuts. It defines them, too.

Wanting a close-up of such fun, I made sure to arrive at Centre Court ahead of time Wednesday, after the early match but before Murray’s. And finally, he and Fernando Verdasco took the court to ... polite, quiet applause.

Look, this was a quarterfinal match at the place that will define Murray’s career, and through three games, the stands were half empty. The first set was nearly over, and it still wasn’t packed?

People were arriving casually. No panic. I felt cheated.

What happened? Fans had left after the first match to have a few drinks. They would get back to Murray soon enough.

Well, Murray spent 3½ hours not playing his best, trailing nearly the entire time. But then he won 4-6, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-5. He is two victories from being Wimbledon champion.

And already there is talk about his great fitness, his pushups, his weightlifting, or whatever. But Murray has been in physical shape for years. This was about his mental shape.

Things have changed. In fact, the crowds in England, the atmosphere, even the tabloids have changed, too. Murray said he didn’t notice: “I think it’s pretty much the same. ... The pressure’s still there. I put a lot of pressure on myself.”

Sure, there’s pressure. Of course. But this is all different, not only with Murray but also around him.

For one, he did far less screaming, pouting and whining than the old Murray. (“I’m much better at doing that now than I was in the past,” he said.)

He did a little of it and called himself names. But mostly, he kept calm and carried on.

So did the fans. You have to understand the British mentality. They expect disappointment. They plan for it. The soccer team will lose, Murray will lose. And the Olympics last summer? They were going to be a disaster.

The British are so prepared for it to happen, that they almost will it to. They almost seem to want it to, just to keep the identity. So when it came to letting people down, Murray never let them down.

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But in the end, the Olympics were great, raising pride. And the Brits did well. And Murray? The evolution came in giant steps: First, he cried on the court after losing last year’s Wimbledon final. Suddenly, he was likeable and human.

He was so surprised by the favorable reaction that instead of his usual prolonged letdown, he started working toward the Olympics. The tabloids dropped off him some, as they had to cover all the other sports, too.

So he won the gold medal on the grounds at Wimbledon. With that relief, he won the U.S. Open, his first major.

He’s a champion now. That’s how he won that match Wednesday.

Now, Murray has won before after losing the first two sets. But Verdasco might have been playing his best tennis ever, crushing second serves and taking successful risks. In the second set, Murray fell apart somehow, making mistakes all over the place.

Instead of grousing, he regrouped.

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“Changed tactics a little bit,” he said. “Was more patient. Took a bit longer between points. Didn’t rush, and didn’t get him any free points after that.”

I’m not saying Britain has stopped caring about Murray, but only that it has stopped panicking. Henman Hill – or Murray Mound – just outside Court 1, with the movie screen showing the match, was packed with thousands of people. Early in the day, British prime minister David Cameron tweeted, “The sky over Downing St a little grey right now. Let’s hope it clears up for Andy Murray to win at Wimbledon. Best of luck Andy.”

The British press asked Murray about what they called the Curse of Cameron, expecting the tweet to bring him bad luck. (See what I mean?)

Murray blew that off. But even the tabloids haven’t been plastering him on the cover every day. On Wednesday, the only sign of Murray on the cover of a tabloid was one huge picture of his mother with a story about how she found Verdasco good looking.

Meanwhile, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, originally on Murray’s side of the draw, have cleared out. Brit prospect Laura Robson, who reached the quarters of the women’s draw, took some focus off Murray, too.

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A few days ago, he was asked if he had advice for her. He said to let her enjoy it.

Let her. That was not advice for her but for the media, the people, for Britain. Murray was speaking from experience.

Honestly, I think people here are expecting him to reach the final, not necessarily to win it. There are limits. And who knows how deep the belief goes in Murray’s head?

If he beats young Jerzy Janowicz in the semis and possibly faces Novak Djokovic on Sunday in the final, we’ll find out. I say it’s deep, but it’s just a theory.

The gloom is lifting. In fact, maybe the sun will even come out.

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