NO MATTER how experienced a player is, any new experience has to bring with it an element of uncertainty. At the highest levels of sport, little things can make a big difference, throwing even the most gifted off their stride.
With a decade as a senior now behind him, Andy Murray is one of the most experienced players in world tennis as well as one of the most talented. Even so, the Scot had never before walked out on to Centre Court as defending champion.
Inevitably, therefore, he had felt a degree of nervousness in the days building up to his first-round match against David Goffin, the world No 104 from Belgium. What would the reception be like? How precisely would he feel?
John McEnroe, for one, had insisted in recent weeks that there is far less pressure in returning to Wimbledon as the champion than there is as a mere pretender to the crown. But Murray could not know that. Not for sure. Not until he had experienced it for himself, and could compare how he felt as the champion now with how he felt 12 months earlier, when he beat Novak Djokovic in the final and ended British tennis’s 77-year wait for a male singles champion.
Well, the reception was ecstatic. A standing ovation from a packed Centre Court, as the No 3 seed and his opponent walked out into the lunchtime sunshine.
Murray acknowledged the applause with a wave of his racket, allowed himself a few moments to bask in the crowd’s affection, and then got down to business. At 1.10pm the match began, and he played his first point at Wimbledon since the one that gave him the title. For the record, he won it too.
Most of the similarities with the Djokovic match ended there, but a couple remained. There was Murray’s unshakable determination, for a start, and his ability to keep his concentration – something that is always more difficult to do against less illustrious opponents, who are unable to pounce on your mistakes quite so quickly.
There were perhaps no more a few shots which displayed his breathtaking creativity at its best, but there was a simple reason for that: only rarely was he forced by Goffin into playing at that level. This victory – a 6-1, 6-4, 7-5 result in two hours and two minutes – was not high art. It did not have to be.
But it was high competence, and advanced efficiency, and elevated effectiveness. Above all, it was impressively solid, with Goffin only briefly threatening to make a true contest of it – and that when it was far too late for him.
Murray’s last match on grass before yesterday had been his third-round defeat at Queen’s by Radek Stepanek, a result that ended his 19-match winning streak on the surface. But if that loss had convinced any spectators that the home favourite was on shaky form, they were soon disabused of that notion as he raced into a 3-0 lead against Goffin. Well-groomed, slightly built and several inches below the usual height for a top tennis player these days, Goffin at times looked more like a plucky junior than someone who had made it through to the main draw on merit. His opening service game was error-strewn, and although he held at the second time of asking, he was even more easily broken again in the sixth game before Murray clinched the set in the seventh.
Virtually the only slip from the Scot in that set was a physical one, as he lost his footing while serving in the fourth game. For a moment, as he rubbed a foot and glared at the offending patch of grass, we were reminded of last year, when for a couple of days it seemed as if a player was hurt by a fall in every other match. But thankfully, Murray played on without repeating the stumble, and although Goffin fell three or four times, none of them did him lasting damage.
Goffin’s problem – one which afflicts nearly everyone who tries to go head to head with the best players in the sport – was a dreadful inconsistency. When he opened the second set, for example, he gave himself game point with a superb passing shot, but then double-faulted the next point to hand back the initiative to his more highly-ranked opponent.
The Belgian actually hung on to take that game, but he was immediately in trouble in his next, and was broken to go 2-1 down. Goffin dug in after that, and the set lasted around twice as long as the first, but Murray still served out to take it without difficulty.
The third set was more problematic, partly because Goffin threw everything he had left into it, and partly because Murray’s level of play dropped a little. The Scot had to save two break points in the fourth game, and was forced to serve to stay in the set at 4-5.
But at 5-5, Goffin dropped his serve from 40-0 up, and his resistance was over. Fittingly, Murray served out with an ace to underline his dominance.
It was his 450th Tour-level victory.
Without wishing to tempt fate or getting too far ahead of ourselves, on this form he should have a few more under his belt by the end of the fortnight.