CONSIDER this the classic some reckoned they were due to deliver even though a quick glance at the vital statistics suggests it was a walkover. Andy Murray played as well as it was possible to play and yet still ended up on the wrong end of a straight-sets defeat, 7-5, 7-5, 6-4. Work that one out.
Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg looked on. Neither of them in their pomp could have lived with yesterday’s version of Roger Federer. When umpire Mohamed Lahyani asked for “quiet, please” at the start, he might also have added: “genius at work”.
Sir Alex Ferguson watched from the same position of the Royal Box. Even he couldn’t have devised a game-plan to de-rail the Swiss. Even Ferguson, the arch-psychologist, would struggle to ensure Murray avoided letting his spirits sink as almost everything he could throw at Federer was returned, with interest.
By the end, Murray was understandably suffering from a sense of deflation that was only natural after seeing the first two sets slip away from him, despite the gargantuan effort put in. The third set was allowed to go a little more cheaply, but he was hanging on in there until the end, even if the outcome seemed inevitable.
The question of who was being favoured most by the crowd was a major topic for discussion beforehand. But really, did it matter? Such concerns went out of the window the longer this absorbing duel went on.
The most fervent Murray fan could only applaud the guile of Federer. Similarly, not even the most obsessed Fed-Head, no matter how far he’d travelled, how many nights he’d camped outside the Wimbledon gates, could fail to admire the guts Murray displayed, including when going 0-30 on his own serve, with Federer already leading by two sets and 5-4 up in the third.
Murray clawed it back, yet again, to 30-30. But a terrific backhand service return by Federer piled the pressure back on Murray. The Scot saw the match finally slip away from him with a forehand he sent just wide.
He was already walking towards the net by the time the ball reared up from the ground. But this wasn’t surrender. Not for a minute.
There were no autographs. Not even from the victor. It was as if they had nothing left to give. Murray dropped a towel on his way from the chair to the locker room, then stood on it, before finally summoning his last reserves of energy to pick it up and fling it to the crowd. Exit the gladiators.
Murray’s bravery was just something else to behold in a clash of clashes on Centre Court. But bravery wasn’t enough. Not against Federer, not when he was serving like this.
Federer has now reached the final, where he takes on Novak Djokovic, having lost only one service game in six matches in these championships. And that was not even against Murray, regarded as one of the best returners currently operating. Federer dropped just 21 points on serve in the entire match yesterday, winning 58 of the 69 points on his first serve.
It was possible to query if Murray had made the right decision when, having won the toss, he elected to face the Federer serve. Conditions were admittedly swirly, and the Scot possibly thought that he had the best chance of breaking his opponent when he had not yet properly warmed up.
Indeed, with hindsight, he was right; this was his best chance. For what was the first and last time in the match, Murray had a break point on the Federer game in this opening game – only the fourth faced by the Swiss all tournament.
He just couldn’t quite secure it, with Federer wisely challenging an out call that then handed him advantage, before securing the game with another big serve. And that was that. Murray didn’t get another sniff on Federer’s service game. And because he elected to face serve first, it always felt as if Murray was chasing the match.
It also felt as if he was having to use superhuman effort just to hold his own serve, particularly in an epic 16-minute game in the second set, which some are already hailing the greatest single tennis game of all-time. Even before this mini-epic, the thought had formed – does someone really need to lose this match? Is there not some way of rewarding them both?
The fourth game of this set already seemed key if Murray was to have any designs on victory. A backhand by Federer that would have won him the game was put wide. Murray served out from there, levelling the second set at 2-2. “C’mon!” he roared, and the crowd, definitely more partisan towards the Scot than the popular Federer might have expected, roared with him. He was not going to go away.
This was underlined in that match-within-a-match that was the tenth game of this set. Federer looked to be cruising after a cross-court running forehand put him love-30 up. Then the unlucky Murray saw a forehand hit the top of the net cord, and land back on his side of the court.
Suddenly Federer had three set points. Murray responded to the crisis by firing down an ace. As we were saying, brave. He made it to the first of seven deuce points with another booming serve, and thereafter it got silly. He saved another two set points during a roller-coaster game.
When Murray chased down a Federer drop shot and flicked a backhand down the line, the reaction was as if he had won the match. He hadn’t. It only gave him advantage. And when he then lamely shot into the net, it felt like we’d be here all night. But who cared? Murray finally took the game with an ace.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Federer won the next game to love. Most mortals would have been at risk of letting the effort of coming so near to breaking their opponent overwhelm them. But not the phenomenon that is Federer, who as well as defying Murray, appears to be defying time and logic as well.