It was a challenge he had faced many times before – saving the day if not the whole tournament for the nation. Andy Murray did it again but not without a gigantic contribution from the other half of the newly-christened “Murrena” project.
Serena Williams, back from injury like Murray, back on Centre Court a few hours after a gruelling singles match, thundered backhand after backhand at their hapless opponents in the mixed doubles to keep the duo on course for glory following disappointments elsewhere.
Big brother Jamie exited the men’s doubles and Johanna Konta lost her quarter-final and the chance to play Williams , but on last night’s form you might not have given the Brit much chance against a woman chasing history and a 24th Slam to draw level with Margaret Court.
Murray played his part against Fabrice Martin of France and America’s Raquel Atawo in the 7-5, 6-3 second-round victory, smoothing away winners from his back pages. And when the shots were too short or too long the packed stands did their best to blow them back on course.
But Williams was sensational. At the end she was asked how she did it. “Do not expect that to ever happen again,” she said. “I’m convinced that was once-in-a-lifetime. I’ve just never hit returns like that in my life.”
Martin is a big unit. Standing opposite Murray for the coin-toss, he loomed over him, something which doesn’t happen very often. In size and bulk he was not dissimilar to the Croatian Franko Skugor, who had helped end Murray’s interest in the men’s doubles at the weekend.
Martin’s partner Atawo buzzed around the net like the experienced doubles practitioner she is. She surprised the crowd by retrieving a fierce Murray drive in the opening game but Williams clinched it by thrashing the ball at Martin’s redoubtable backside.
Showing no ill-effects, the big yin from Bayonne bazooka-ed serves at Mezzena to level things up. Then it was Williams’ turn. Her singles victory over US compatriot Alison Riske had been extremely hard-won but she kept our pair ahead, the clinching point coming from a volley on the run.
Atawo’s serve was the least powerful on display, but her deft touches won her points and Martin did the rest with three sledgehammer smashes, thumping one of them into the turf with such power that it bounced right over the scoreboard and into the box from where Murray’s mum Judy was watching.
Centre Court was right behind Murray from the start – willing him to get stronger and quicker as he continues his rehab in full public view. They cheered every point he won, and especially those with something approaching his old barnstorming style, and the little simper of encouragement when a volley was missed or he double-faulted was like that emitted by a grandparent when a child bruises a knee or breaks a toy.
Imagine the roar then when he returned Martin’s next smash. And when this was followed by some frenzied pinball at the net. Still, the French-American pairing were able to level the match at 3-3.
Then it was Murray’s turn to slug Martin. In retaliation Martin bounced yet another smash into the TV commentary pill-box. But Atawo’s serve was being attacked, Murray sizzling a forehand past his brick outhouse of a foe.
Then Williams fired one straight at him. Martin was able contrive a winning response before a mock-stagger as if he’d just been shot. The crowd were loving this.
The seventh game was proving the best thus far, Williams unleashing a cross-court winner with her grunt travelling not far behind it. Atawo’s serve was definitely vulnerable but Martin covered so much of the net that the pair were able to hold on again.
In the next opportunity to break, Martin serving, Williams had chances and fluffed them. But the bigger the miss, the bigger the commiseration she received from Murray. Once again, though, Martin was able to bash his way out of trouble.
Murray attempted some lobs during what was a tight contest. These weren’t the solid gold classics of 2016 and he’s still finding his range. At set point on Atawo’s serve he struck the net with a volley and was raging with himself. Williams, though, played the next two points like a tornado. For the clincher, the grunt preceded the shot, bamboozling Martin, who tried to connect with it rather than the ball.
The second set looked like replicating the pattern of the first: winners from Murrena with a superstar degree of difficulty and some misses which remind you that they are in fact mortal. For the first time Murray was under pressure on his serve but came through that game. Again it was Martin’s service which cracked and again mainly because of the raw power of Williams.
Her backhand was proving a mighty weapon although it was a forehand, with virtually nothing at which to aim, which proved decisive. Murray grinned at her as if to say: “How the heck did you do that?”
The next game was another cracker, Murray’s touch on a drop-shot simply stunning as he seemed content to leave all the heavy artillery to his partner. Murray served for the match, punched the air after splitting his opponents with a smash.
One last confab, one more lightning-quick reaction from Williams, one more ace from Murray – the match.