WHO was that young man in the Royal Box? Washed and scrubbed, suited and booted and proudly wearing his All England Club members’ badge. Could it be Andy Murray?
Could the world No.2 now be a part of the establishment, part of the fixtures and fittings at the venerable old club, accepted and loved by one and all? Oh, yes. This was Murray and he was in his element.
It is now part of the tradition of Wimbledon that on the middle Saturday the Royal Box is stuffed with sporting legends. This year, unsurprisingly, the place was awash with Olympic heroes, all of whom were cheered to the rafters. But, when Sue Barker saved the best for last and brought on Murray, the crowd rose to its feet and roared. This was their man, their champion and the bloke they really believe will win them the title this year.
“That was good, it was a nice thing to do,” Murray said. “I am surprised how many athletes managed to come and to co-ordinate them all at once was a good effort.
“For me, the Olympics was the best ten days of my career, I don’t think it will ever really be topped. Yes, it was ahead of the US Open, because the whole experience was just great. Obviously having it here, that was never going to happen again, but with the way the 10 days went it was great.
“It was a nice feeling [to get that reception]. Normally when you go out there and you are just walking out to the court, you don’t really get the chance to enjoy that so much. You are obviously quite nervous and trying to concentrate on the match. Going in as a spectator is a bit different.”
Getting out as a national hero and Olympic superstar was slightly more problematic. The etiquette of the Royal Box is exceedingly strict and asking for autographs, taking pictures and generally acting like a star struck celeb-watcher is simply not the done thing. No matter – everyone wanted their photo taken with the Scot as he struggled manfully to get out of the spotlight. He was stopped at every turn by another grinning club member or sports star wanting a snap of themselves with him.
There is a different look to Murray this year. There is a new confidence, a new sense of belonging and a distinct feeling that this is his time. Even before the draw imploded following the early losses of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, Murray’s general bearing and demeanour was that a man in complete control of his own destiny. He was fit, he was ready and he was in top form.
The way he obliterated Tommy Robredo on Friday was not only impressive but a joy to watch. He barely put a foot wrong, he hardly hit a duff shot. He was on top of his game from the very first rally and Robredo did not stand a chance. This was a marker. He had planted his flag on the Centre Court grass and claimed the place as his own.
“This is probably my eighth time here and you start to feel more comfortable,” he said. “The first few days are still tough, quite stressful. You are quite anxious to get out there on court, but Friday was a good sign for me. I played well and hit the ball cleanly from the first point till last. I was very happy with that.”
Tomorrow he will face Mikhail Youzhny, the volatile but talented Russian who, at the age of 30, reached his first grass court final two weeks ago in Halle (and lost to Federer) and reached his first quarter-final at SW19 last year. That said, Youzhny’s greatest claim to fame of late is the way he pulverised his racket at the French Open last month, mangling it with nine vindictive strikes as he was losing to Tommy Haas in the fourth round. He can be a bit of a hothead.
“It is important to remember those things, especially if you are behind in matches,” Murray said. “Always a chance you could come back and he might get upset about something, but you can’t go into the match kind of banking on that because he also can play some great tennis. He has played some of his best tennis in high-pressure matches before, like Davis Cup and stuff, where he has had some big wins, so he can cope with pressure. He does like the grass as well.”
And, if Murray comes through that match unscathed, there is only one other seed left between him and the final – Jerzy Janowicz, the huge man from Poland who stands 6ft 8ins in his tennis socks and hits the ball as if he hates the thing.
After years of watching the big four at the top of the rankings make stately progress to the latter rounds of every grand slam, the draw at Wimbledon this year is a shambles, yet Murray must ignore the wreckage around him and just concentrate on the match in front of him. And, if his new gang of friends on Centre Court can help him, as they helped him to Olympic gold last summer, so much the better.
“So long as when I get on the court everyone is behind me, that is all I can really ask for,” Murray said. “It is my job to deal with everything else, but if the crowd is behind me in the matches it definitely helps me raise my game. If they can do that, starting Monday, it will be a big help.”
Murray’s (probable) match-ups
Russian made the quarter-finals here last year and is a crafty shot-maker who enjoys grass, but often struggles against higher ranked opponents.
Head to head: Murray leads 2-0
Spaniard has failed to maintain level of 2009, when he defeated Murray in the Australian Open en route to a titanic semi-final loss to Rafael Nadal, but punishing lefty forehand makes him a tricky player on his day.
Head to head: Murray leads 8-1
Pole burst on to scene at indoor Paris Masters last year, defeating Murray as he made the final. Has a sledgehammer of a serve, but also throws in drop shots and has a deft touch. Highly confident and extremely dangerous.
Head to head: 1-1