Wimbledon: Andy Murray’s time is now

WHEN Andy Murray left Wimbledon as a crestfallen little boy – his hero, Andre Agassi had ignored his appeal for an autograph – he could never have imagined that less than a couple of decades later he would stride on to the Centre Court as Britain’s first men’s singles finalist in 74 years.

Dreamed of it? Yes. Believed it could happen? Never in a million years. But it has happened. Today Murray stands on the threshold of greatness. If he can beat Roger Federer this afternoon, he will be transformed; he will become a living legend, a national treasure, an icon of British sport. Dear God, come January, he might even be Sir Andy if he gets his reward in the New Year’s honours list. Never again will people look at Britain’s record of failure at the All England Club and sigh, “not since Fred Perry in 1936...” If Murray wins today it will be a case of “Fred who?”

Unsurprisingly, Murray is trying desperately hard not to think about the ramifications of this afternoon’s match. The old, tedious, saying – “one match at a time” – has never rung so true.

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In Federer he faces the greatest player ever to pick up a racket and a man on a mission. If the Swiss claims his seventh Wimbledon title, he will equal Pete Sampras’s tally of trophies in SW19. He will also regain the No.1 ranking, deposing Novak Djokovic, and so will match Sampras’s only other remaining record – total weeks at the top of the heap. As of this morning, Sampras is one week ahead of Federer on 286.

After a few hours on court and a handful of sets, Sampras may be expunged from the record books entirely. No doubt Pistol Pete will be cheering on the Scot, if only in the hope of salvaging some pride.

As if the prospect of taking on a legend in order to claim a place in history was not bad enough, Murray also has an entire country sitting on the edge of its seat. The 15,000 lucky souls who have Centre Court tickets for today will be a respectful crowd – they always are – but the sound of 15,000 people praying silently for a British win can be deafening. And if Federer and Murray are nervous, the rest of the country is beside itself.

“All of the grand slam matches I have played have been important to me, all of them,” Murray said in his deadpan baritone. “This is my next match and I focus on it like any other one. If I look upon it as the Wimbledon final, and no Brit has won it for however long and there’s this many people watching, I’m going to play crap. Of course it is a fantastic feeling to be here but I know what it is to lose in grand slam finals and I know how tough that feeling is.

“So, I don’t want to let myself think about winning it or getting ahead of myself because it will ruin my chances. I’ll think about the occasion on Saturday and I’ll think about the pressure, the situation and what it’s going to be like to prepare myself. I’ll visualise it.

“It is exciting and it is a great position to be in, but I am not going to get ahead of myself as I know that’s counter-productive.

“A lot of people say I dreamt of winning this but when I was a young kid I didn’t understand what a grand slam was, I didn’t know how important Wimbledon was. It’s been the last few years when I have started to appreciate it and understand how important it is to me and my career. This is the reason you put your body through the work-outs, and training. It’s the last few years I have thought about it more and come to understand how important it is.”

Then again, when Agassi was 22, he still did not really understand what Wimbledon was all about. He, like Murray, had lost his first three grand slam finals and then, in one miraculous afternoon and five nerve-wracking sets he beat Goran Ivanisevic to claim the first of his eight major titles. Wimbledon was not only the launch pad for the rest of his career, it changed his life forever.

“This is where it all started for me, my dreams,” Agassi said. “It really started here. I think this was a place that first taught me to respect the sport, to really appreciate the opportunity and privilege it is to play a game for a living, to play tennis. People work five days a week to play on the weekend. We get to call it a job. I think I learned that here. Wimbledon has allowed me to grow; this championship has allowed me to grow into the player and the person that I am today.”

Wimbledon could change Murray’s life, too. Not only is there the financial reward – he could eventually earn an estimated 
£65 million from today’s result – but there is the possibility that his first grand slam win could open the floodgates. For the past four years, the Scot has been knocking on the door until his knuckles have bled, asking to be let into the grand slam winners’ club at the very top of the rankings. In three previous finals – the US Open in 2008 and the Australian Open in 2010 and 2011 – he failed to win a set but now, with Lendl as his guide, he seems mentally stronger and more able to deal with the rollercoaster of emotions that go with a best-of-five set matches at the business end of a major championship.

“I need to focus on [the day] as a tennis match against Roger Federer,” Murray said, making it all sound so simple, “somebody I have won against before: how am I going to win that match and what am I going to do to win it? That’s really the plan.

“The first slam final I played against Federer in the US Open, I was definitely not ready to win a grand slam. I was too young and didn’t have enough experience. The last one in Australia I felt I was ready but he played better than me that day, though I still had some chances. I hope that each year you keep improving – and I am a better player and getting more experience from losing some tough matches, winning some tight matches like the quarter and semi-finals here, knowing the things that you did to get you to that stage and not going away from them.”

Murray knows exactly what to expect from Federer’s game plan – they have met 15 times before with Murray leading their rivalry 8-7. But, when it comes to finals, Federer is the leader (four wins to two) and, as for grand slam finals, Federer leads 2-0. The Federer who turns up on the final Sunday at a grand slam is a far more ferocious beast than the sublimely talented bloke who plies his trade elsewhere. And he has made Centre Court his own over the past decade.

But Murray, too, is now part of the fixtures and fittings of the grand old court. He has played most of his matches there and has come back to Wimbledon many times in the past few months, taking time to sit in the empty arena and remember what has gone before and ponder what might be to come.

“It is a court I love playing on,” he explained, “and the more matches you play on a court, you get used to the surroundings. You know the wind, where the shadows are on the court and the sun, where everybody is sitting in the box. The US Open centre court, for example, I don’t play on it that much so sometimes it can feel a bit new each time you go out there, where as at Wimbledon I have played so many matches there now. I know how the court plays, the speed of the court, I do feel a lot more comfortable on that court than all of the other courts in the slams.”

Whatever happens this afternoon, Murray has known for months that he is closing in on the world’s top three – coming within a whisker of beating Djokovic in the Australian Open semi-final proved that his game can compete with the best while Lendl has shown him that he is mentally ready to win. If it does not happen today then there is the US Open to plan for in a couple of months, not to mention the Olympics in three weeks’ time.

Federer, at the age of 30, is running out of chances to win another slam; Murray is still only 25 and at his peak. Murray’s time will come; he, like everyone else in the country, is hoping that time is now.