Andy Murray Wimbledon: Returns may be key in semi

Andy Murray at training yesterday. Picture: Reuters

Andy Murray at training yesterday. Picture: Reuters

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BEFORE his quarter-final against Fernando Verdasco, perhaps Andy Murray’s biggest battle this year was convincing the public that his path to the final was an arduous one.

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The No2 seed won his first four rounds so convincingly, so undramatically, that his progress each time appeared almost automatic.

Even against Mikhail Youzhny, who at least took him to a tie-break, Murray was able to win in the regulation three sets. The Wimbledon crowd were calm and dispassionate: more united than ever before in their support of Murray, thanks in large part to his victory at the Olympics, but with no need to demonstrate that support at the top of their voices.

Verdasco changed all that by winning the first two sets on Wednesday and forcing the Scot to dig deep into his reserves of energy, both mental and physical. By the end of that five-setter, the 15,000 on Centre Court, the densely packed crowd on the Hill and the millions watching on TV all felt they had become more than spectators. They were part of the campaign now: foot soldiers in Murray’s long march.

Yet despite that experience, many of us may still expect normal service to be resumed in today’s semi-final against Jerzy Janowicz. The Pole may be seeded at No 24, but he is still relatively unfamiliar in this country. So what you don’t know can’t hurt you, right?

Well, Murray does know Janowicz, and he is well aware that the 22-year-old from Lodz can hurt him, above all with his bludgeoning serve. Fortunately, though, Murray often fares best against big servers, thanks to his ability to retrieve rallies from apparently impossible positions.

“I think the return is the best part of my game,” he said. “Normally when you’re playing against the big players they don’t always like playing against guys who are returning their biggest weapon. Sometimes they can take that weapon away from you by serving at 140mph, and for a long part of the [Verdasco] match I wasn’t able to return a lot of his serves and even on the second serve he was coming up with huge serves as well. That’s why in the past I think I have had success against them, but sometimes you can’t control how well they serve and if you’re not reading the serve it’s tough.

“It’s going to be a very, very tough match, because he serves extremely well. So often when you play against guys with big serves the sets come down to just a few points and who plays the big points better. I need to be able to take my chances when they come.”

Naturally, he also needs to be in the best possible physical state if he is to take his chances. And it can be difficult to get back into that state quickly after a demanding five-setter.

Murray seemed to have that difficulty at the Australian Open back in January, when he beat Roger Federer in a dramatic five-set semi-final, then played his best tennis in no more than brief patches in the final against Novak Djokovic. But he explained that there were specific difficulties with the timing of matches both at the Melbourne major and at the US Open – difficulties that do not yet apply here, for all that the introduction of the Centre Court roof means play can go on until 11pm.

“You’ve got to remember for us the whole day is pretty stressful when you play the night matches in the semi-finals of the slams in New York or at the Australian Open. By the time we’re done it’s approaching midnight and we’re tired and we want to go home and we don’t want to have to answer loads and loads of questions.

“We want to go to bed and recover, because any slam final is going to be one of the biggest matches of your life. You just don’t want to have to be speaking to people late into the night.”

Murray did not have to speak to anyone too late on Wednesday night, when he had his media duties done before darkness fell. He has had adequate time to recover from the Verdasco match, and in any case tennis players have powers of recovery beyond most other athletes, the one exception being those cyclists who compete in the Tour de France.

So, although Janowicz won in straight sets against his fellow-Pole Lukasz Kubot, Murray does not think that will give his opponent an advantage. In fact, he suggested that recent results mean both semi-finals will be especially difficult to predict.

“I’m playing Janowicz next. [Djokovic] is playing Del Potro, who he lost to in the Olympics last year, and I lost to Janowicz last time I played him. I think Novak also lost to Del Potro last time he played him, so anything can happen in the semis and I’ll be ready for it.”

Murray may have the home crowd behind him, but he believes that Djokovic should still be seen as the favourite to win the title on Sunday. He comes to that conclusion not because of the total number of minutes played by the Serbian, but because of the quality of tennis he has displayed in his five matches to date.

“Yeah, I think he is the favourite. He’s the No1 player in the world, he’s won here before, and he has obviously been on very good form since he’s been here.

“He’s had some tough matches against some very good grasscourt players in the last couple of rounds in [Tommy] Haas and [Tomas] Berdych and he’s won those matches fairly comfortably without too many problems. [Against Berdych] he was down a couple of breaks in the second, but he came back well.

“Yeah, he deserves to be the favourite. He’s earned that right with his results in the past.”

Similarly, Murray has earned the right to be second seed with his results in the past. Those results may count for nothing today, but even so, if those two play to form, they should both make it through to the final. It will not be easy against Janowicz, and the Pole could take a set, but Murray has the all-round game to get to his second successive Wimbledon final.

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