When Ivan Lendl walked away from Wimbledon last year, he was a chastened man.
He thought he had experienced almost everything in tennis (save for actually winning Wimbledon, although he did reach two finals) but he had never witnessed, close-up, quite how much pressure the Great British hopes are under in SW19.
Yet, as Andy Murray has his breakfast this morning and packs his kit bag for his second consecutive Wimbledon final, his fourth consecutive major final and his seventh overall, the pressure is just part and parcel of his day-to-day life. It is not that familiarity breeds contempt – far from it – rather, in this case, familiarity breeds confidence. He knows what the gut-wrenching fear of failure feels like (he was gripped by that before the US Open final last year and came through it) and he knows how deep the pain of defeat can be – his tears on Centre Court last summer proved that.
And, most important of all – Murray knows the joy of winning a grand slam trophy in New York last summer and he knows the satisfaction of winning the biggest match of his life on Wimbledon’s Centre Court. The Championships at Wimbledon come around every year; the Olympic final at the All England Club was a once in a lifetime experience and he won it in style.
Now, though, the levels of expectation are higher than ever. Murray is the world No.2; he and Djokovic, the No.1, have established the new rivalry at the top of the game to replace Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Now the whole of Britain expects Murray to win this afternoon – the days of desperate hope and resigned disappointment are long gone.
For 58 weeks of his life between 1992 and 1993, Jim Courier was in a similar position to Murray: for those weeks he was the world No.1. He was America’s great tennis champion, winning four grand slam titles in three years and reaching another two finals, including the Wimbledon final of 1993. He knows what pressure feels like, but not even playing at the US Open as an American can come close to the weight of expectation heaped upon Murray’s shoulders.
“I can’t relate to what any of the other grand slam nations’ players feel because tennis just doesn’t matter to the average person on the street in America the way it does for these two weeks here,” said Courier, pictured. “It just doesn’t mean the same to Americans – it never has and it probably never will. So for us, it’s impossible to put ourselves in their shoes and go ‘OK, now I know what it feels like: if I lose this match, the whole country’s going to think I’m a failure’. I can’t imagine what that feels like because it was never thus for me. It never mattered that much.”
But Courier has watched with admiration as Murray battled his way through the disappointments of losing four grand slam finals and finally emerged victorious in New York, and at the Olympics. Now Courier sees an experienced, battle-hardened champion preparing for a Wimbledon final.
“I’ve seen him look like a different person since the US Open,” Courier said. “I thought he looked very strong in Australia in spite of losing in the final but he still played like a major champion and handled that moment pretty well, I thought. And so far in this tournament, he looked very steady – he didn’t look great in the quarter-finals but champions find ways to win when they’re not at their best. So, I think that was some experience coming through for him.
“There’s a confidence when you win a tournament one time, there’s a confidence and a comfort when you come back to it. You’ll feel a different way about it – at least I did. And I think Andy will feel that way in the US Open when he goes back to defend his title this year.
“And there’s the knowledge of what it takes to lift a big trophy, there’s no longer the fear of the unknown – and the fear of the unknown is an outside force in matches for players that have never been there. It’s what Janowicz will have felt on Friday: the fear of the unknown; he’s never been in a semi-final, he doesn’t know what his heart is going to feel like when he walks on to the court. So, there’s an unknown force that’s working for you, in a way, but that will work against you until you win something.”
And Murray has won something – he has won it here in SW19 and he has repeated the triumph in Flushing Meadows. The familiarity of reaching and winning major finals is a new reinforcement to his already formidable armour. And as 15,000 people on Centre Court and many millions more watching on TV cheer him on today, that familiarity might just be the extra component that helps him deal with being the Great British contender playing in the Wimbledon final in an attempt to end the 77-year wait for a Great British champion.
“There are a lot of benefits to it as well,” Courier added with a smile. “You know, it’s a half-full scenario, it just depends on how you look at it.”