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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Murray the prince of darkness

Photo Titled Centre Court at night
Center Court at night
Last year it was Richard Gasquet, this year it was Stanislas Wawrinka – there must be something about Andy Murray and rip-roaring five-setters in the fourth round.

Murray is through to the quarter-finals 2-6, 6-3, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3 for the second year running – but it was close. Too close for comfort.

They had begun in brilliant sunshine, although with the roof closed, but by the time they were done it was 10.38pm and the Centre Court glowed bright like a vast spaceship in the heart of SW19. Never before had a match finished so late at Wimbledon, never before had we had a night crowd on Centre Court – the All England Club had entered a new era and Murray had led them there.

For the crowd, though, this was more like the old days, the Tim days, the days when tennis was best viewed from under the chair with the hands over the eyes. The teatime terrors of Tim had the whole country on tenterhooks for a decade although it did wonders for the beauty trade. After a fortnight of the nation chewing its nails down to the knuckles, the manicurists used to mop up after Wimbledon.

With Murray, it has been different. Well, until he gets to the fourth round, that is. Even when the Scot lost the second set against Robert Kendrick in his opening match, there was never a feeling that he might lose. But when he dropped the opening set to Wawrinka, everyone gulped. This was not the same player who had thrashed Ernests Gulbis and marmalised Viktor Troicki. And when 15,000 people gulp in unison under the roof, the sound does little to settle the nerves.

But Murray is an experienced campaigner these days. Where once he would have fretted if everything started to go wrong, now he digs in and finds a way to get through it.

"When I don't feel like I can play my best, there's other things that I can do rather than just hitting a tennis ball," Murray said, "like chasing more balls down than I could before and getting as many balls back as possible. Mentally, I'm a lot stronger. When I'm not playing my best, my mentality is always 'right now'. I always feel like I can get back into matches, or work my way back into matches. Whereas in the past I would be playing badly and I would continue playing badly the whole match.

"Now, if I'm playing badly, I can find ways of turning matches around and winning and playing well when I need to. Those are sort of things that have got better. In terms of ball-striking and stuff, that’s not really changed. It's just the mentality and the physical side that’s won me a lot of matches."

Unfortunately for Murray, Wawrinka was playing differently "in terms of ball-striking and stuff" than he had been in the earlier rounds. The Swiss has a game built around power: a big serve and thumping ground strokes on both sides and, as he faced Murray, all three shots were deadly. Where on Saturday he had struggled past Jesse Levine, the American qualifier, now he was playing out of his skin.The serve was going like a bullet, the sweeping backhand was doing damage and the forehand was rifling into the corners. And, in a shock development, he was attacking the net.

At the other end, Murray's play was tentative and his body language gave every indication that something was not quite right. Whatever it was, it was not a huge problem, but Murray was not himself. That is where the Scot's secret weapon came into play. As he struggled and grimaced, so the 15,000 sensed they just might be needed. So when he won his first game of the match after 24 minutes, he got a big cheer. When he unleashed one of his trademark flashing forehand cross-court winners, played on the run and with extra venom, he turned to the crowd and asked them to cheer louder. So when he broke serve a few minutes later, the assembled throng tried to raise the rafters. Careful lads – those rafters cost a fortune.

And so it went on – Andymonium was building to a crescendo while Wawrinka was beginning to look rattled. He had the trainer on to massage some life back into his legs but it did not seem to do the trick as Scotland’s finest sometimes coaxed and sometimes bludgeoned the Swiss into errors. Normal service had been resumed by the world number three and everyone began to relax.

Yet Wawrinka was not finished yet. He suddenly found a second wind in the fourth set and started leathering the ball for all he was worth. The level and quality of the hitting between the two men was at times astonishing and Switzerland’s second finest player was elbowing his way back into contention. He was running like a whippet to chase everything down and punching like a heavyweight. And when Murray missed a forehand on break point that would have given him a 5-3 lead a fifth set seemed inevitable. Stan the Man was not going to let him forget that missed opportunity.

By this stage the crowd was almost exhausted but the two combatants were still fighting tooth and nail. Murray broke and led 3-0. Wawrinka broke back and levelled for 3-3. And then Murray earned his first standing ovation of the night, breaking to lead 5-3 as his faithful supporters screamed themselves hoarse. When he finally sank to his knees after three hours and 57 minutes, the Centre Court roar could be heard for miles.

And to think – we have all of this to go through again in two days' time when Murray plays Juan Carlos Ferrero.

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