IT WAS on the middle Saturday ten years ago, with the Centre Court in ferment, that Andy Murray suffered his first Wimbledon setback. Two sets up against David Nalbandian, the Scot was not quite physically up to the task of seeing off his more experienced adversary.
Now this day in the Wimbledon calendar has become known as Sportspersons’ Saturday and Murray has long since become an established star. Murray is not the gangly, callow figure of 2005, with the black ankle support and boyish-looking cap on his head. He is sinewy and strong. He is more comfortable in his skin; we are more familiar with his ways.
He is no longer a potential grand slam winner; he is a twice-victorious one, including here two years ago. When once he had pretentions, now he has intention. Andreas Seppi stands between the Scot and the fourth round, an Italian who has not won a single set in six consecutive defeats to Murray. “His game is better than mine when he’s 100 per cent,” said Seppi yesterday. “That is why he won the last matches.” He didn’t sound as though he was overdosing on confidence. He has beaten him once, in Nottingham nine years ago.
“Too many matches, too long ago,” replied Seppi, when asked whether he could use these memories to inspire him today. Murray is now one of those people like Seppi want to avoid, particularly here, in such a potentially partisan environment.
There are now no doubts about how serious an athlete Murray is. How could there be? The Murray of 2005 had yet earn his place in pantheon of British sports stars, several of whom will today settle into seats normally occupied by members of the royal family and television celebrities, the modern aristocracy.
In the recent past, those such as Sir Bobby Charlton and England rugby World Cup winning captain Martin Johnson have been invited to take in the action from this prestigious vantage point. Several 2004 Olympic gold medallists looked on when Murray tackled Nalbandian a decade ago. How does Murray compare the demands of tennis with those of other sports?
I’m not doing it to say I really want to help. I’m doing it because I’m friends with themAndy Murray
“My speed on the tennis court is because I am quick over two or three metres, or changing direction,” he said. “But over a 50m or 100m race I am not going to be particularly quick in comparison to some football players or some rugby players – anything like that.
“But I suppose we are used to being very versatile. There are a lot of different skills that you have to train in tennis in terms of the strokes – forehands, backhands, serves, returns, smashes, drop-shots. There are different spins, different surfaces. And then there are different opponents every couple of days, which can be challenging, tactically.”
While many who only take interest in tennis for two weeks every year might not believe it, his point is that it is a sport that deserves to be respected, particularly in this febrile, intense environment of a grand slam.
Murray has no reason to feel in awe of anyone any longer. At his first Wimbledon, he remembered being cowed whenever Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski came up to talk to him, wondering why they would want to speak to him.
Now he is the mentor, one whose help and guidance has been mentioned on numerous occasions by British players this week. Murray just shrugged when this was put to him; as if to day ‘of course he is there to help. Who wouldn’t?’ And it isn’t simply something he regards as a patriotic obligation. “I’m not just doing it to say I really want to help them, I’m doing it because I’m friends with them, I get on well with them, they’re people I like,” he said. “I genuinely care whether they win or lose the matches. The relationship is kind of different with all of them [the British players here], I would say.”
There will be sports people in the Royal Box today who will be feted and yet have never been ranked in the top 100 in the world in their chosen field, which means respect, surely, should be paid to James Ward, whose has now made it into the top 100 courtesy of two victories here this week.
“It is not an easy thing to do,” acknowledged Murray. “For me, I don’t like saying that it is great that Jamie makes the top 100. What is great is that he reaches his potential. Not everybody has the capabilities to get to the top 100 but James really has the capability. And you want to see him reach his potential, which he is getting close to doing.”
Murray hit with Ward yesterday on the practice courts at Aorangi and, while his affection for his fellow Briton is genuine, there are pragmatic reasons for playing with him; it means they can steal an extra hour of practice time (each player is allocated 60 minutes).
It wasn’t hard to spot the player with the very real prospect of emerging champion here; Murray’s backroom team stretched almost into double figures, while Ward was accompanied by only a single advisor, his coach Darren Tandy. Playing with Murray clearly helps Ward raise his game but it was interesting to watch the Scot, and how at ease he looks when striking with a friend, and surrounded by coaches he clearly gets on well with; Amelie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman joshed with him as much as they advised Murray, who wore a bright red T-shirt on which was written: Protect the house.
On a day when those in the crowd are so determined to enjoy themselves – it is, after all, the first weekend day of Wimbledon – there will be a special atmosphere in the courts. Thanks to Ward, who takes on Vasek Pospisil, not all eyes will be on Murray, as they were in 2005. But, unlike ten years ago, the Scot knows failure is not now an option. He must protect his own house. The mentor needs to deliver.