ON MONDAY afternoon at 1pm precisely, come rain or shine, Andy Murray’s world will stand still. Once the Centre Court umpire has said “play”, the silence will be deafening. The hush that falls on the Wimbledon crowd before the first ball is struck is unlike any other. It is so quiet, you could hear a gnat blink.
It has been 78 years since the Centre Court faithful had a British champion to cheer as he opened the defence of his title – Fred Perry turned professional at the end of 1936 and was never allowed back into the then amateur grand slam arena – so the moment will be dripping with history as well as tension. As Murray’s pulse races and his heart pounds, he will be desperate to get the first point of Wimbledon 2014 out of the way; then his tournament can really begin.
The defence of a Wimbledon title is unlike any other. The champion knows exactly when and where he will be playing – first match on Centre Court on the opening day of the tournament – and he is treated with respect and appreciation. The other grand slam events shove their champions out on to whatever court television requests and on whatever day and at whatever time. Three weeks ago, Rafael Nadal, the world No 1 and the eight-time champion, began the pursuit of his historic ninth French Open trophy on the second day of the championship out on the equivalent of Court One at Roland Garros. But walking out on that first day at Wimbledon is very different, as John McEnroe knows only too well.
“There is always a feeling of an immense accomplishment,” said McEnroe, who won three titles in SW19. “Superiority is not quite the right word but you feel the tradition of coming out at that time. It’s different to other events. You have that brief moment of euphoria and then you have to accept the fact that now you have to go through the whole idea of possibly winning again. You also have to go through the idea that the court is a little slicker and you think of Centre Court and talk yourself into thinking, ‘You have the advantage because you are the guy who knows how to play on it’. You start to get into reality when you step on the court.
“If you win anything you come out feeling like a man but, at the same time, this is the best possible scenario, especially the way that no-one plays on the court [before you], everything is just the court. I loved it, that’s great, that’s something that all the tournaments would love to duplicate, there’s nothing like it.”
At least Murray will never have to face the unbearable pressure of trying to end Britain’s interminable wait for a home-grown champion. That was all dealt with last year and as he heads for SW19 this year, he is only trying to become the first Briton in 11-and-a-half months to win the Wimbledon trophy. That, McEnroe believes, will lift a considerable weight from the Scot’s shoulders. And the very fact that Murray won last year, beating Novak Djokovic in the final, was the best result for the sport overall.
“I felt like I went through a lot, although I admit a fair amount of it was self-inflicted,” McEnroe said of the pressure. “I watched this poor guy year after year having to deal with what people were hoping he would do. I like Novak a lot. I think he’s great for tennis. But I was hoping Andy was going to win. Novak’s already won five or six of them. He’s doing OK. So for Andy to win Wimbledon was good for tennis.
“It is tougher to stay at the top than to get there in the first place but, for me, it just seemed easier to win Wimbledon a second time. Some of it depends on how old you are and what you have been through. I am not going to say it is easier for Andy to win it a second time but there will be less pressure overall. I would think it will be quite a bit easier for him to do it. He has this window as long as he is healthy.”
Murray had always believed that he had it in him to win a grand slam title but much as he did everything in his power to achieve that goal, there was a small part of him that feared Wimbledon. He knew he had the talent to win there but he was wary of how such a win would change his life – he was happy enough with his life the way it was.
Sure enough, he spent most of last summer trying to come to terms with what he had achieved on that sunny, Sunday afternoon in July and his focus did wander a little. But once he had time to reflect in the peace and quiet of his Surrey home as he recovered from back surgery, Murray reset his goals. Now that he has hired Amelie Mauresmo as his coach, the pair have stated their intent: to win more grand slam titles. And Wimbledon is the first target.
“Sometimes you get hungrier, when you taste it,” McEnroe said. “You hit a wall at some stage when you don’t want it so bad, but you don’t know when that’s going to be. You just taste it and you want it so bad that you find other gears. I won the US Open in 1979. When I lost to Borg at ’80 Wimbledon, I looked at this guy and thought, he had won it four in a row and that made it five. ‘How the hell does this guy want it so bad.’ It taught me something. I didn’t think it was possible when I’d won that fourth-set tiebreaker that Bjorn would come out and seem to want it more than I did.
“Murray’s been taught that by these experts like Nadal and Federer. They just find something in the well. They want it more than you thought was even possible. If you watch Djokovic playing Nadal, say in the final. This is what we expect. Murray, to me, has the best chance to derail that.”
• John McEnroe commentates for BBC TV at Wimbledon and presents 606 on Radio 5 live.