IT HAS been a while since we have oohs and ahhs at teatime on Centre Court. In the old days of Tim Henman, fingernails were bitten to the quick as he led the Great British tennis-watching public on one rollercoaster ride after another but since Andy Murray took the driving seat, life has been a good deal calmer.
These days, the early rounds with Scotland’s finest tend to be simple affairs: one very good player (Murray) against one not quite so good player. And then the good bloke wins with relative ease.
Looking at the results coming into the tournament, we seemed set fair for the same course. Murray was playing better than ever and had lost just one match in three months; Mikhail Kukushkin, his first-round foe, had no grass-court form to speak of (one match won in three lead-up tournaments) and had lost both of his previous encounters with the Scot.
Maybe that is why the Centre Court emptied just before Murray arrived. They had just watched five sets of one-way traffic as Petra Kvitova and Roger Federer marmalised their first-round cannon fodder and were obviously in need of a Pimms, or something stronger. As Murray was supposed to do likewise to the Russian-born Kazakh, he could start without them. They came back soon enough, mind you, and what they saw gave no cause for concern. Murray was not playing at his blistering best but he was serving well enough, he was moving fluidly and after 35 minutes, he was a set to the good.
Up in the players’ boxes, the two coaches sat on either side of the stairwell: Amélie Mauresmo on the end seat (presumably for ease of egress to the facilities – she is heavily pregnant) and Mrs Kukushkin a good nine seats away on the other side. This was the first time the two women had gone head-to-head in battle and both looked remarkably relaxed about it all.
All of that changed when Murray’s first serve went walkabout at just the wrong moment. He was trying to close out the second set at the time when suddenly, he could not hit a first serve to save himself. The more times he hit the net or missed the line, the more ratty he became. Kukushkin perked up. When Murray allowed himself to be broken as he served for the set (his accuracy percentage was down in the 40s by this point) and then dropped his serve again to give his opponent a 6-5 lead, Kukushkin thought it was Christmas.
But for all that the Kazakh unwrapped some of his flashiest winners and cheekiest returns (and just for future reference, it is best not to mess with his forehand), Murray was not going to be beaten. He forced himself to focus and forget about his serving woes and he chased down every ball he saw. It worked. Kukushkin bottled it and Murray was two sets up after a one-sided tiebreak. The crowd had watched nervously through all of this but now that their hero was in charge, they could relax. If he missed another first serve, they oohed. If he fluffed a return they ahhed. And when he double faulted to go two break points down as he served for the match, they did both.
They knew Murray was not going to lose so they had a little fun safe in the knowledge that the world No 3 will not be so careless tomorrow when he takes on Robin Haase. But for a moment there, it did feel like the old days.