Age is usually the sportsman’s greatest enemy; with each passing year the spirit may remain willing but the flesh gets progressively weaker.
For Andy Murray, though, age is a positive bonus as the remains of the men’s draw moves towards the sharp end of the tournament. The shockwaves from Novak Djokovic’s defeat on Saturday are still lapping around the locker room but Murray knows from experience – this is his 11th Wimbledon campaign – how to keep his feet dry in such circumstances.
“I’ve won grand slams before,” he said calmly. “I think for guys that haven’t that are still in the draw, they’re looking at it and seeing an opportunity for themselves. You saw it a little bit with matches on Monday. You know, maybe upsets potentially. Milos [Raonic] in his match went a couple of sets down – I think for the guys in that part of the draw, they are seeing a big opportunity.”
As soon as Djokovic left the grounds, Murray moved up one notch in the bookies’ estimations and is now the obvious favourite for the title. No pressure, then. But Murray has been here so many times before that he knows the score – the expectations of outsiders wash over him without leaving a trace. During Wimbledon, he does not read the papers, he deletes Twitter from his phone and he even watches the tennis on TV with the sound turned down. What other people say and think matters not one jot; it is what he feels and what his nearest and dearest think that is important.
“What the bookies say is completely irrelevant. Since I’ve been playing Wimbledon the last 10 years, I’d probably say seven or eight of those years, the expectation has been extremely high and the pressure’s been unbelievably high. That’s exactly the same this year regardless of who’s in the draw or not and it will be the same until I’m done playing tennis. The expectation is extremely high at this event regardless. It doesn’t change.
“I deal with my own expectation. I expect to play my best tennis at these events and put a large amount of pressure on myself to do so, which I don’t think people always appreciate.
“I’m putting a lot of expectation on myself at this event, like I do at all of the grand slams, and I play my most consistent tennis at all of the slams doing that. I’ve had more ups and down in my career outside of the slams but at them, when I’ve put the most expectation and pressure on myself, I’ve played better.”
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga stands between Murray and a place in the semi-finals. He has beaten the Frenchman 12 times in 14 meetings. In their five meetings on grass, Tsonga has won just four sets and almost lost more than a tennis match when they met in the semi-finals in SW19 four year ago. As Tsonga raced into the net, Murray ripped a passing shot at full pelt and caught Tsonga right where it hurts. The poor man was on his hands and knees on the Centre Court in agony. The memory makes Murray chuckle but, it is all right, Tsonga has forgiven him.
“Yeah, I get on great with him,” he said. “We’ve played a lot of close matches as well but I’ve managed to come through a lot of them. Jo is one of the toughest players to play on the grass but on the other surfaces I’ve managed to play some good matches against him. Apart from the one tough loss against him which was the first round of the Australian Open [in 2008] which, at the time, the press were slamming me for losing that one and a couple of weeks later he was in the final. So he’s gone on to become a top player.”
It will not be easy but Murray will be the favourite as he steps on to court today. Three years ago, when he was on his way to his historic win on Centre Court, he relied on the calm, level-headed and impassive figure of Ivan Lendl to get him over that huge final hurdle. But when he looked to his coach, he noticed he was getting increasingly agitated as the rounds went by: Lendl knew his charge was playing well enough to win the title. But back at his side again this year, Lendl remains his stone-faced, usual self.
“It’s totally different now because I’ve won Wimbledon so the pressure isn’t the same,” Murray said. “At the time, it had been such a long wait that everyone saw that as being my chance to win Wimbledon and I’ve done that now. So, obviously I want to do it again but the pressure – you can’t compare the pressure this year to when I played Novak a few years ago.”
Outside pressure, then, is for the newbies. For the 29-year-old former champion, it is only his own ambition and expectation that counts. And, so far, that has been doing him no harm at all.