Wimbledon 2022: Underarm, overarm, Andy Murray Wombles free ahead of clash with John Isner

Andy Murray’s opponent in today’s second round has a plaque on the wall of Court 18 celebrating a superhuman feat of endurance 12 years ago. You wonder if John Isner will kiss it for good luck because he’s never beaten the Scot.

Eight times attempted, eight times come up short. That’s the lanky and - his description - goofy American’s record, although records are something of a speciality for him and they’re mostly big.

In 2010 Isner won the sport’s longest-ever match. Eleven hours and five minutes against Nicolas Mahut of France. The extraordinary slugathon took three days to complete, hence the plaque.

Isner also holds the record for the fastest serve - 157.2mph in the Davis Cup in 2016 - but whatever Exocets he’s fired at Murray the two-times champ has hurled them right back.

After his first-round victory the Scot, one of the best returners in the game, was asked what it was like to stare down the barrel of the Isner serve and others like it - and how he’s able to neutralise them. “I don't know exactly why my record is as it is against those guys,” he said. “They're obviously very tough players to play against because of the nature of how the matches go. You're not necessarily always in control. You can go four or five games on return where you're not getting any opportunities. There's not always lots of rhythm in the matches, so it's difficult.

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“But for whatever reason I've always played well against them. The matchups have been good for me. I’ve played well against John in the past but I've never played him on grass before, so that will be a different challenge.

“He's played well here in the past. He was very close to making the final a few years ago [2018, beaten in the semis]. I'll need to play really well and certainly return a bit better [than against opening-match opponent James Duckworth] if I want to get through that.”

Isner served 54 aces in his first-round victory in five sets over France Enzo Couacaud but admitted Murray will be a “different animal”, though not, as he suggested, one of “England’s best-ever”. After requiring five sets to see off the Frenchman, he said: “Andy’s much harder to ace because his anticipation is amazing.”

Murray eventually came out on top against his Australian opponent by 4-6 6-3 6-2 6-4 with much of the post-match intrigue surrounding his use of a controversial shot found among the box of tricks of Duckworth’s countryman Nick Kyrgios - the underarm serve.

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“I did it because he changed his position when he was returning,” Murray explained. “He’d been struggling a little bit on the first serve so he stepped two metres further back. As soon as I saw that I threw the underarm serve in.

“Personally I have no issue with players using it. More and more guys have started returning from further behind the baseline to try and give themselves an advantage. I don’t know why people have found it potentially disrespectful - it’s a legitimate way of serving. If your opponent is going to stand well behind the baseline, why not try to lure them forward if they’re not comfortable returning there? Tactically it’s a smart play.”

Underarm, overarm, Murray is Wombling free at this Wimbledon and Monday’s match reaffirmed his status as the big night-time TV draw. He likes that his matches when on Centre Court pack in the crowds but there are also misgivings about the prime viewing slot, which he occupies again today.

“There are things I like about it and some I don’t,” he said. “Usually there’s a really good atmosphere but the start-time [on Monday] was moved to half an hour later and now there are interviews on the court afterwards.”

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The match was halted - in the middle of Murray’s purple patch - because the lights were required. “It’s not easy changing conditions [when the roof has to be closed]. The breaks can come at potentially key moments. It can kill the momentum.”

Before Wimbledon, Murray was affected by abdominal problems - just the latest aches and pains of the great gladiator’s twilight years. But, having declared he felt “fine” with no twinges, he was cautious about the prospect of a “deep” run in this year’s tournament.

“I don’t know about that,” he said. “Certainly I'm in a better place than I was last year when I played here. And, in terms of pain, certainly in a better place than I was in 2017.” He would, though, have to raise his standard against Isner.

Murray’s peerless prime was 2016: another Wimbledon title, another Olympic gold medal, No 1 in the world. He was asked, compared to then and now post-metal hip, which bits of him were no longer at their absolute best and which shots were harder to execute.

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“I’m probably not going to give any of that away,” he said with a smile. “There are some things I’ve not been doing as well as I would have liked but in terms of hitting the ball the shots haven’t changed much.

“But in 2016 I played 80-odd matches. Over the next five years I only managed something like the same amount. You can’t replace them. It’s so important to be in those situations, key moments at 4-all and 5-all, break points, coming up against top players consistently and winning. You can’t replace any of that. But now that I’ve been competing regularly again my game is starting to feel better and better.”

The grass court season, although he missed Queen’s this time, keeps Murray close to home and family, which is important to him. “One of the nice things about it is being able to be around them, to see my mum and dad which I don’t for large parts of the year, and obviously the children. Oh, and my wife. I can’t miss out her and would get in trouble if I did.”

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