Andy Murray, like Jed Bartlett, is The Real Thing. He didn’t need to prove it, of course, but he did again last night against Stanislas Wawrinka, a four hour five setter which at several points looked like it would be notable for all the wrong reasons.
The Scot is one of my favourite people to watch in sports today, simply because he seems so oblivious to the scene around him. His mood swings, his teenage angst, his concentration span – all these elements, which should be (in order) non-existent, suffused and immaculate – they rage and roil within in him, and the match seems to be as much with his own buoyancy as his opponent.
Last night it was backhand dynamo Wawrenka who fell to his infernal rhythm, a player who looked lethal in the first set and never once gave an inch to the Scot, but for all his brute strength was unable to find an answer to Murray’s odd habit of returning the ball from almost anywhere on the court. Wawrenka’s actually Swiss, despite his very Polish name, but in his Junior French open champion, leaving school at 15, academy-driven progression mirrors that of the post-Soviet invasion. Murray, on the other hand, spent most of his formative tennis years playing against his brother in the roughneck gang town Glasgow, and was at school in Dunblane the day Thomas Hamilton took 17 young lives. Not for him the serenity of Lausanne.
The first set was a nightmare for the new flagbearer of British tennis (Tiger Tim’s commentary box hope that Henman Hill might remain a year before it becomes Mount Murray seemed tragically forlorn) and its perennial search for some light at the end of the tunnel. Murray was slovenly, his game unkempt while Wawrenka had the cool efficacy of the Eastern European contract killer he resembled at times. His serves were perfectly placed pistol shots, while Murray hacked the ball long or wide, and lapsed into his old habit of muttering to himself like a bewildered pensioner, lost, once again, in familiar surroundings.
Wawrenka charged to a 4-0 lead in a matter of minutes, before, it seemed, Murray was even aware a game of tennis was in progress and not a genial warm up. Soon the set was gone, and the faces they panned to in the crowd looked desperately worried. Amongst them were some peculiarly Wimbledon celebrities: Ewan MacGregor received lavish attention from the BBC crews, while Private Eye editor Ian Hislop – looking, as ever, like a new-born baby whose dimensions changed but not his visage – had his arms folded, tense, with belief notably absent.
How could you believe in Andy Murray? Even now, as he begins to slough off the teenage gawkiness, he remains very different to the archetypal men’s tour player. Right now that would be the absent world number one Rafael Nadal, whose biceps have adorned the cover of the New York Times magazine, a physique which verges on the iconic. Murray, on the other hand, is a proportional disaster. His thighs are immense, Herculean, and more akin to those you see on track cycling sprinters like Chris Hoy. His upper body, the parts he uses to hit the ball, remain stubbornly mortal.
In any case, that oddly-proportioned body propelled him out of a deep hole on Monday night, and into the last eight. You could hardly suggest that he looked in great shape, and it is to be hoped that the match doesn’t weigh too heavily on his bones come Wednesday, but for good periods he showed why England Expects.
Because, at times, he played some spectacularly good tennis, and played it almost nonchalantly, without the fierce determination which characterises most of his opponents. Which is not to suggest he wasn’t desperately keen to win – you only had to watch the feral expression on his face as he adopted Lleyton Hewitt’s ‘come on!’-s to ascertain that. But where Hewitt has an entitled air about him when he utters the phrase (and there’s something more than a little rote about the way it’s wheeled out), Murray was genuinely goading himself forward, with a fierceness visible in his countenance I struggled to place, until I recalled the vicious, mythical wolf which Zack Snyder created in his heroically stupid 300.
That beast meets its demise with a spear through its mouth driven by Spartan king Leonidas, but Murray has more than raw aggression in his arsenal. Or rather, in the absence of raw aggression he plays a game which is almost impish, more audacious than ferocious. Which perhaps makes it more idiosyncratic than the power players he comes up against, but when he’s on they look confused, disappointed, even angry, as Wawrenka did last night, under the roof and unnaturally natural light at Wimbledon.
Murray’s victory, over a fine, but not top tier opponent, was ground out. He dropped the first set through inattention, and the fourth because he seemed unable to sustain his momentum. But the way he rose, impassioned and full of blood, to cannon through the final set was breathtaking. I called him the Real Thing for this reason. In a game being overrun by strong, rigid players from former Communist states (or those with similar bloodlines and discipline), who play with a implacable structure, Murray represents the triumph of democracy. His game is strange, willful, and at times he looks lost under the lenses and gazes and the expectations.
But then he snaps upright, makes some incredible shots and flummoxes opponents who had thought they had found a way to beat him. Federer represents a wall; impassive and resolute – he matches an opponent blow for blow until he senses the time is right to destroy them, albeit artfully. Murray has no such control over his will, or how it is imposed. He simply feels it when it comes, and lets it run amok. His path to the final is not overly arduous. With Nadal out the best players are on the other half of the draw. Should he get there he’ll face Federer on the Swiss master’s favourite court with history beckoning and an unbearable burden of expectation on Murray’s frail shoulders. But so long as he is out there, trying in vain to control his body and mind, there remains a chance that he might break the longest, most wrenching drought in British sport, and give a recession-battered nation something to treasure.