The most interesting moment – and for that euphemism read alarming – in the BBC’s eve-of-tournament Wimbledon documentary was when Andy Murray revealed the exact point on the walk from locker room to Centre Court when he thinks: “I just can’t play this game.”
He still thinks this, even as a two-times champion. Indeed he has been making similar statements throughout his troubled 2017, such as when he screamed “I don’t know how to play!” in Monaco back in April, and on another occasion: “I can’t move!”
Such despairing cries can quickly be inserted in a book entitled “Things Roger Federer Would Never Say” – but whoever thought Britain having a tennis superstar to call its own was going to be easy? Surely, though, in opening his defence of his second crown, Alexander Bublik, of Kazakhstan, was going to be a routine engagement.
This is a sparkily confident lad, 20 years old, who was unaware Murray had lost to two Lucky Losers already this year or that the Scot had a hip injury, just the latest grumble of a supremely sticky season which has already included a bout of shingles, a dose of the flu and an elbow problem.
On top of all that he has been curiously afflicted by a flappy forehand, a less than awesome second serve and a vulnerability against opponents he would normally demolish. Last year he scooped nine titles, winning 25 consecutive matches and guys like Bublik, ranked 134th in the world, were meat and drink or sushi and a smoothie to our man.
But say you what like about Murray who did indeed win this encounter in straight sets: he heaps a lot on these big, cartoon-hero shoulders. At a moment when he could be justified in concentrating solely on his wavering form, he put what seemed like extra pressure on himself by deciding to donate his Queen’s winnings to the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster only to exit in the first round. Undeterred, he declared pre-Wimbledon that the nation needed its sagging spirits lifted and that he would do his darnedest to oblige.
All this despite his latest injury hampering his SW19 preparations. We’ve all been engrossed in a drama you’d have to call “My Left Hip” but, at 12:46pm yesterday, Scotland’s beknighted and greatest-ever sportsman strode on to Centre Court.
Well, after Bublik had done his striding. If there was champ-goes-first protocol, the challenger ignored it, waving to the crowd, headphones on, quite the young pretender, Murray in a cap following behind a man who likes to showboat and says of his style: “I do strange things.”
Bublik likes rap, scats a bit himself, idolises Eminem, and has the hip-hop star’s lyrics as tattoos : You won’t break me, you just make me stronger than I was. Well, in the fourth game on the way to a 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 victory, Murray did break him, the Kazakh serving a double double-fault before a scorching drive from Murray’s forehand, proving the shot still works.
The Scot seemed to be moving okay, although in the next game he didn’t stretch fully for a Bublik lob. That was the kind of tricky overhead he was performing for fun last year. But Murray was sharp in the close exchanges and a delicious lob set up another break. Bublik, who in some knockabout interviewing of Murray, pumping him for tips, had been told that serving 20 double-faults wasn’t a whizzo idea if he was serious about world domination, produced another in his next service game. His trickery had been confined to a solitary tweener (unsuccessful). Murray wrapped up the first set in 29 minutes, the high point being a flicked forehand on the run from beyond the tram-lines. Nothing wrong with the hip on that occasion.
At other moments, though, he looked like he was feeling it. A rub of the problem area here, a kick out of the leg like a frisky horse there, accompanied by a glance up to supercoach Ivan Lendl, even more stone-faced than usual behind shades. In the second set, Murray secured a break first game. He was threatening to run away with the match but the Centre Court crowd don’t really like to see players annihilated, so – confident their champ would ultimately prevail –- they took up Bublik on his suggestion they give him some encouragement.
There was an entertaining game at 3-1 for the Scot, who produced a terrific pirouetted return and a pick-up requiring the full Murray scurry – but Bublik, who put himself in trouble with another double-fault, eventually found the aces to narrow the deficit.
Soon, though, Murray was serving to increase his lead, and more or less hirpling to the baseline. He was quickly down love-40 but a quite outrageous backhand return deep behind the baseline gave him set-point, Bublik applauding his wonder-shot.
Another double-double allowed Murray to break his opponent right away in the third set. Murray was walking even more slowly to take up position but Bublik probably took little encouragement from that, given how Dunblane’s finest was able to move when it really mattered.
He did, though, take encouragement from the first of two rain breaks, clasping his hands towards the heavens which drew some laughter. It was Murray, not fancying slip-sliding one little bit, who alerted the referee to the change in the weather. He wouldn’t have wanted an interruption either, for risk of allowing the muscles to cool down, but he returned to the court to hold serve only to be forced off again.
On the winning shot he shouted at a fist. If he had anything to say to his hip it might have been back in the locker room. To get there he would have passed the point where his self-doubt is at its highest. Sterner tests await but Andy Murray is wrong. He can play this game.