IT WOULD be easy to reach the conclusion that the person responsible for starting this match with the Centre Court roof open caused Andy Murray as much trouble as his opponent, Kevin Anderson.
The rain delay came when Murray was already a set up and had galloped to a 3-0 advantage in the second, having broken the South African’s serve twice and dropped just one point on his own service game.
He had looked totally in command but when they returned, what had been looking like a fairly routine win for Murray, developed into something resembling a battle, well, as close he has been to one during this year’s Championships.
Although he eventually won 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (8-6), at two hours 32 minutes, it was certainly Murray’s longest match and toughest so far in the defence of the title he won last year.
In the first game back out on court, Anderson responded better to the indoor conditions and returned well to pull things back to 3-1. He held his next two service games to keep himself in the hunt before Murray upped the ante again in the ninth game to secure the second set.
But there had been a change in mindset during that rain break and while few expected Murray to lose the contest from such a strong position, his opponent was not going to give him the win on a platter, and Murray had to save a set point in the third set tie-break before wrapping up his 17th consecutive win on the Wimbledon lawns, stretching back to the 2012 Olympics.
While Murray has earned a gold medal on Centre Court and made history on it last summer by becoming the first British player in 77 years to win the men’s singles title, the world No 18 had never made it into the fourth round of the
Championships before and had never even played on Centre Court. Prior to his encounter with Murray, Anderson had taken the opportunity to walk down from the locker room and through the famous doors, wanting to familiarise himself with the surroundings as he tried to imagine the empty seats filled with bottoms and the noise that such a large crowd could make. Meticulous in his preparation, it was a moment he had worked hard for but didn’t want it to overwhelm him.
The players had retreated back to the locker room while the roof had been closed and he had obviously given himself a talking to because he was an even tougher adversary when they re-emerged – more aggressive and less tentative with his shot selection.
In the early stages of the game Murray had looked just as impressive as he had throughout the first three rounds. In those matches he had not lingered long on court, had not dropped a single set and had lost an accumulative total of just 19 games over the nine sets played.
As he quickly found a way of dealing with the power, height and depth of the Anderson serve, the Scot began to apply the pressure. Even when the South African, who had defeated Murray when they last met, in Montreal, three years ago, pounded deliveries which kicked up at Murray’s body, the reigning champion found a way of getting a racket on the ball.
It must have been a cause for frustration for Anderson to see his main weapon blunted.
Having posted 63 aces in his first three rounds, Anderson was up against the man who has been returning significantly better than any other player in the draw.
As early as the third game, he snuffed out the threat, racing to a 0-40 advantage and converting the third of the break points. It gave him the foundation to win the first set in just 43 minutes. A master of mixing things up, Murray produced a range of shots, punctuating his own service games with aces and producing the kind of ground strokes that had his lofty opponent lunging to get them back. He left him stranded as he sent winners down the line and across court, and even had the audacity to try the odd lob.
The pressure was undoubtedly on Anderson, but he appeared reinvigorated after the rain break and was at ease in the environment aware that the scoreline left him with nothing to lose.
On another day, against another opponent, that interruption could have been more costly – and given that the match before had been paused so they could roll the Centre Court roof across, the decision to open the main SW19 amphitheatre up to the elements was a strange one, especially as the dark clouds above seemed to have agreed only a temporary truce. That was a theory supported by the weather reports.
At least the welcome they received on court was warm, with one of Murray’s chief celebrity cheerleaders, Sir Alex Ferguson, amongst the guests in the Royal Box. Analysing things ahead of play, Murray had described his adversary as a big guy with a big game and in his first appearance on the show court, he showed flashes of that, particularly in that third set where both players were intent on not being the first to blink.
They traded a succession of quality shots that had the crowd gasping and, occasionally, on their feet.
Proving as stubborn as each other, they forced a tie break.
Anderson threw a lot at Murray and they both had the chance to wrap things up as they exchanged mini-breaks.
Anderson even earned himself a set point but, it was slightly ironic that Murray saved it with a thunderous serve before eventually sealing a place in the quarter-finals where he will meet the sturdy challenge of Queens Club champion, Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov.
As the 62-minute third set reached its conclusion, Sir Alex was the first to his feet to celebrate the victory.
Nevertheless, Murray is keeping a lid on things despite his impressive progress to the last eight. He knows things will continue to get tougher but he has certainly set his stall with the message loud and clear; he won’t be giving his title away without a fight.