THE weight of evidence that points to Andy Murray beating Fernando Verdasco is a volume so thick it could choke an elephant. If you were to write down all the reasons why he should win and all the reasons why he may lose then on one side you will have a library and on the other, some improbable guesswork that could comfortably fit on the back of a stamp.
The case for Murray. He is a on a 15-match winning sequence on grass and is on a ten-match winning run against left-handers, Verdasco being the first leftie that the Scot will have faced this year. Murray has made ten straight grand slam quarter-finals and is looking to make his fifth straight Wimbledon semi-final. He has reached the final of the last three majors he has competed in and has yet to drop a set in this championship. That’s a whole lot of powerful stuff coming at Verdasco. And what has he got in reply?
He has lost eight times to Murray in their nine meetings. He has a career record on grass that shows 36 wins to Murray’s 70, 22 losses to Murray’s 14. He has only ever been to one grand slam semi-final in his life and that was four years ago. In the years since he has been to one grand slam quarter-final – the US Open in 2010. In the last two years he has failed to beat a single player in the world top-40 in any of the four tournaments that dwarf all others. He has won only one of his last 11 matches against top-five players and this is the first time making it beyond the last 16 at Wimbledon. Case closed, you might think. Certainly, the bookmakers think so. We wandered into one yesterday and asked for the odds on a Verdasco win. The price was offered – and rejected.
This is the kind of thinking that Murray is avoiding like the plague – and no wonder. It’s not just his tennis that is strong these days, it’s his mind also – never stronger. It is his ability to ignore the assumptions of others and prepare like he is facing another kind of Spaniard today that makes him all the impressive. If it was Rafa Nadal at his scariest that awaited Murray then his preparation would not have been any more steely than it has been for the improving, but still suspect, Verdasco.
Yesterday, Murray prepared for his first meeting of the year with a left-hander by having a hit out with Johan Brunstrom, a little-known 33-year-old Swede with a doubles ranking of 55 in the world but, more to the point, with a left-handed game that Murray could analyse. For 45 minutes Brunstrom pounded serves at Murray, who then left the court, reassured everybody that he has no injury worries with his back before making his exit via a gauntlet of fans, stopping to sign and pose and sign again.
Murray has had a smooth enough progression to this point, if you eliminate the sloppiness of the second set against Mikhail Youzhny. He was not at his best, but he got the job done. His second serve was poor – and has not been good all championship, only 53 per cent points won on second serve as compared to the standard-bearer, Novak Djokovic, who has won 71 per cent. This, as much as anything else, is what we should be looking out for today. How is the Murray second serve? We know everything else, pretty much, is on track.
Yesterday, he spoke of Verdasco’s victory over him in the Australian Open in 2009, a five-setter that Murray looked in control of when taking the third 6-1 only to lose the next two, 6-3, 6-4. Murray was the only one of the top eight seeds not to make the quarter-finals that year. “It was a tough loss for me because I hadn’t lost to him before and at the time it didn’t look like a great result, but he went on to have a great year. He nearly beat Rafa in the semis there. It was a great match (a five-set epic) and it was very close. He went on to finish the year in the top-10, so it wasn’t such a bad loss.
“I know him fairly well. I’ve practised with him a little bit and I know his team. He’s a nice guy, pretty relaxed. Not learning how to speak Spanish is something I regret not doing when I was actually over in Spain. I wish I‘d learned the language. I can understand a fair amount, I’m just not comfortable speaking it. I bought the Rosetta Stone stuff a few years ago and I was doing it religiously for a couple of months. It wasn’t like I stopped. I was probably two-thirds of the way through it and then someone stole my backpack at an airport. That was all the discs and stuff gone and I never got back into it.”
He may not speak his lingo, but he understands Verdasco well enough. “He spends a lot of time in the gym, he works hard, and he has just switched coaches to Richie Sanchez, who has done a very good job with most of the guys he has worked with. So they’ll have their tactics ready. It’ll be tough.”
Murray keeps getting asked the same questions here, by the media, by the fans, by everyone. As he signed autographs, the supporters wondered about his back. “It’s fine,” he smiled. Somebody called out about Djokovic and whether he could beat him. Another reminder that in the mind’s eye of many observers, today is Sunday and Murray is in the final, instead of Wednesday and a pile of hard work ahead to make the final come true.
“I can tell by the way I get asked the questions by the press that everyone is sort of getting ahead of themselves and expect me to win these matches. So that, obviously, adds pressure. There are positives and negatives to it.”
It’s part of his life now, part of the expectation he has created for himself with his brilliance, over the last year in particular. His favourite expression over the last few days seems to be “getting ahead of themselves”, meaning others are, but he isn’t. No presumptions and no superstitions, either.
Asked, light-heartedly, if he was dreading David Cameron tweeting his support for him given the prime minister’s tweet for the Lions (who lost) and then for Laura Robson (who also lost), Murray said that none of that stuff had penetrated the oasis in which he lives. “I haven’t heard anything, but that stuff has absolutely no influence on the matches. Someone sending a message doesn’t affect the outcome of the match.”
He’s focused on Verdasco and nobody else. “Playing a left-hander is the same on pretty much all surfaces, but playing on clay, the topspin they put on the ball, especially on the serve, is different to grass because on grass the ball slides through the court more and so it comes away from you, whereas on clay it kind of moves the opposite way. It’s hard to explain.”
We’ll see it for ourselves soon enough.