MIDDLE Sunday at Wimbledon is traditionally a time to take stock. With no play at all – one of the ways in which this tournament differs from the other three majors – competitors have a chance to rest, recharge their batteries and prepare for the tougher tasks ahead.
It would be wrong to say that the hard work starts here, because without years of hard work even the most talented players would not get close to qualifying for Wimbledon. But virtually every match is a far higher standard now we have reached the last 16 than was the case in the first three rounds. And even the leading seeds have to begin to raise their games.
Andy Murray, in fact, started doing that in his last match, the third-round clash with Tommy Robredo. He beat the Spaniard in straight sets, just as he had defeated Benjamin Becker and Yen-hsun Lu, but to do he had to play notably better tennis.
This afternoon on Centre Court the No 2 seed will have to raise his game again to meet the challenge of Mikhail Youzhny. The 31-year-old from Russia is the 20th seed this year, but has been in the world top ten, and has the power to pose the Scot real problems.
Murray’s coach Ivan Lendl, for one, is in no danger of underestimating Youzhny. “He played well in Halle, got a set against Roger [Federer], knows how to play on grass,” Lendl said, referring to the grasscourt warm-up tournament in Germany.
“He’s a former top-ten player and you can’t take anyone lightly. Anyone who has won three matches has done something right.”
When the draw was made, Youzhny was only regarded as a possible, not probable, fourth-round opponent for Murray. Serbia’s Janko Tipsarevic was seeded higher, at No 14, but he lost in the opening round to compatriot Viktor Troicki, whom Youzhny, in turn, beat on Saturday.
Tipsarevic’s defeat barely registered during a first week which was full of shocks, with Federer, Rafael Nadal and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga all disappearing from Murray’s half of the draw. The elimination of those big names led to John McEnroe declaring it would be “an absolute catastrophe” if Murray failed to reach the final – a phrase that provoked some head-shaking by Lendl when he was reminded about it, as well as a suggestion that his old American rival was these days viewing things from the perspective of a journalist.
“I don’t want to say it [reaching the final] is irrelevant, but it is like anything else,” Lendl responded. “Someone can say that Djokovic is the hot favourite, somebody can say that it will be the end of the world if Andy wins or he doesn’t win. One or the other, it is totally irrelevant what you guys say or write; it is whatever happens in the tournament.
“You guys need to sell papers and they need to get an audience and everyone needs to say something or write something. And once again, it does not matter until the final is finished and there is one guy holding the trophy.”
No doubt McEnroe was indulging in hyperbole when he used that phrase, because in reality a great many things in life are more catastrophic than getting to the Wimbledon semi-final and then losing. But as the No 2 player in the world behind Novak Djokovic, Murray was seeded to get to the final before the tournament began. Now, with three of his big rivals out of the way, he has to be a hotter favourite than before to get there.
But Lendl, resistant to any reading of the tournament that would put more pressure on his man, implied that those competitors who had got this far had to be pretty good, never mind if they lacked the pedigree of a Nadal or a Federer. In other words, while the absence of those big names led to talk of the draw opening up for Murray, the coach still expects every step to the final to be a testing one.
“It happens all the time: sometimes your draw opens up, seeds lose. I would not call Andy’s draw by any means open. Both Rafa and Roger lost, but they didn’t lose because the other guys can’t play. They lost because the other guys played very well – and you can see how closely they [the “other guys”] are tagged in the next round.
“It’s like in golf: someone shoots a 62 and they don’t often follow it with a 64. The guys who beat the top guys, there’s more requirements on them and attention they are not used to, and a lot of times they don’t make it through the next match. It has happened and those players are good players.
“You definitely cannot relax. Though in some people’s eyes it is open, in my mind it is not open, it is still very difficult.”
Lendl has been credited with helping Murray take that final step from grand slam finalist to winner, and in turn the Scot has helped the older man rediscover his love of the sport. The two have a similarly dry sense of humour, and their enjoyment of each other’s company has been obvious in recent weeks – especially at Queen’s where they took part in a charity match.
But out of the spotlight and away from all the entertainment, Lendl still has a serious job to do: to examine the minutiae of Murray’s game, and help make the minor tweaks that, at this level, can make a major difference. “The goal is still the same as last year: to try to win it,” he said.
“I’m more concerned what shots he’s hitting right, what he’s not hitting right, keep the things he’s doing well going and let’s try to improve the things he could do better and that gives him the best chance of winning. That is my mission. One point at a time, that’s the idea.
“Pre-tournament you’re trying to make sure he’s peaking at the right time, and during the tournament you make sure the things he’s doing well, he keeps doing well. And the other things you try to improve a little bit.”
Murray may have to improve a little bit from his last match to beat Youzhny, but he has a lot left in reserve. He could well drop a set this time, but the variety of his weapons should be enough to outfox the Russian.