WIMBLEDON, England -- We've all grown accustomed to seeing an athlete close ranks, a once-garrulous sort growing tired of the media grind and shutting himself off from the public at every opportunity. Andy Murray has gone the other way. The Wimbledon quarterfinalist has evolved from a grumpy, grungy kid into an engaging young man.
Wednesday will be one of the most important days of Murray's life, a quarterfinal against Feliciano Lopez on Centre Court as he continues his bid for his first Wimbledon title. With each day, he seems more comfortable being mentioned alongside Rafael Nadal (apparently OK after a foot-injury scare), Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in this golden era of men's tennis.
I picked him to win the tournament, and I'm not sure how that will work out, but I couldn't be more impressed with Murray's demeanor through the tournament so far.
Once almost bitterly put off by news conferences, acting as if he'd rather be home playing a video game, the 24-year-old Murray has become a captivating presence after his matches. He actually seems to be enjoying the process.
Out of nowhere, after Murray had defeated Richard Gasquet in the fourth round, someone asked him if he had any superstitions. "No, because you get sort of attached to them," he said. "Like, if you always go into the same shower, and then one day someone's in it, you're obviously not going to jump in there. Well, you could, but I choose not to (laughter).
"I heard Tim (Henman) used to always go in the same shower," he added. "Maybe he should have changed when he got to the semifinals."
That broke up the room, and this is such a smart career move by Murray. His wit and wisdom become increasingly evident, and he does himself great favors by entertaining the British media. "He gets a bit less Scottish each day," one writer cracked the other day. Should he lose over these last three rounds, he's likely to see the angry tabloid headlines raining down upon him once again, but it helps if you've established yourself as a decent fellow.
As the women's quarterfinals began on Tuesday, under the cover of the Centre Court's roof, Murray could have gone home to rest after a morning practice. But he stuck around to do a BBC Television spot with John McEnroe and Irish golfer Rory McIlroy, who has arrived to watch Murray and one of his good friends, Rafael Nadal, in quarterfinal action.
Murray looked totally comfortable, joking with McEnroe about his golf game and showing his appreciation of McIlroy's astounding performance at the U.S. Open. As the trio addressed Murray's chances of winning the tournament, he joked that "Rafa and Roger could do with sharing" after winning the last eight Wimbledon titles between them.
John Lloyd, the one-time English star writing in the Guardian, noted that "Murray displayed amazing variety, the full repertoire" against Gasquet. "It was a stunning performance, as good as I've seen him play on grass. He has stepped up a level in every way. There's no question in my mind he's playing well enough to win the tournament."
Some skepticism remains. Goran Ivanisevic, the 2001 Wimbledon champion, told the Times, "I just want Andy to show up and play his best tennis when it really matters. When things get important in the semis or finals of Grand Slams, he's so disappointing. The way he played the Australian Open final was the worst. Watching it made me angry."
Murray has freely addressed that problem at Wimbledon, saying, "I know everyone who plays the sport gets angry and frustrated, but there's a time to do it. If you're pumped up, playing well and then get angry when you play a bad point, it takes its toll over the course of four, five sets. It's been good at times, but it's been bad, as well. I feel a lot more comfortable and grown-up now, a lot less self-conscious. And I feel it's no one's responsibility but mine."
It was a huge relief to learn on Tuesday that Nadal's MRI revealed no serious injury to his left ankle. He probably won't be at full strength, but considering how he played through the injury -- racing freely about the court over the last three sets of his win over Juan Martin del Potro -- we can expect to see Nadal at his hard-charging best. It would be a pleasure to watch Murray-Nadal and Federer-Novak Djokovic in the semifinals, and that dream just might become reality.
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For various reasons, we didn't see nearly enough of touted prospects Milos Raonic, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Grigor Dimitrov, Ryan Harrison or Kei Nishikori at Wimbledon (although Dmitrov and Harrison left some huge impressions). The one young hotshot who has persevered, interestingly, is Bernard Tomic.
Nothing intrigues the tennis world more than a fresh, original look, and the 18-year-old Tomic has taken the tournament by storm with his totally unpredictable play. "It's bizarre to play him," said Xavier Malisse after a straight-set loss to Tomic in the fourth round. "He has a game that's a bit like Murray. He kind of lulls you to sleep and then suddenly he hits a big backhand down the line. I think his game is superb for grass. On this surface, he's a player who has it all."
We'll get a pretty good line on Tomic's progress in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, for he'll be up against the formidable Novak Djokovic, who befriended the kid years ago and has recently employed him as a hitting partner.
A prodigy in Australia (although his roots are entirely Croatian), Tomic signed with the International Management Group at the age of 13, proclaiming, "I want the serve of Goran Ivanisevic, the heart of Lleyton Hewitt, the mind of Pete Sampras and the groundstrokes of Roger Federer. I want to be No. 1." Then he won the Australian juniors, at 15, and there seemed to be no stopping him.
There are officials in Australia, however, who will tell you that Tomic's father, John, retarded his progress. He has threatened to send Bernard out of the country to play Davis Cup for Croatia. He once accused tournaments of fixing draws against his son, and in a Futures event in Perth three years ago, he became so incensed that an opponent wasn't being called for foot-faults, he demanded that Bernard default the match. Which is exactly what happened, Bernard walking right off the court.
To make things worse, Bernard has had a fractious relationship with Hewitt (whom he recently supplanted as the Australian No. 1), and it reached the point two years ago where Todd Woodbridge, then captain of Australia's Davis Cup team, said, "It's more Bernard's journey's a concern. I'm worried about developing him as a player and as a person."
As recently as last year, there were serious doubts whether Tomic's unorthodox game would play on the high-profile circuit. Roger Rasheed, who once coached Hewitt, was asked if the kid had top-20 potential and he answered, "I can't see it. It doesn't ring a bell in my mind. He plays a slow, low-pace game that's really junk tennis. Once players see him the first time, they figure him out pretty quick. All that stuff with his serve and his movement, that eventually gets found out."
There's no doubt that Tomic has a bizarre, awkward-looking service motion, and that he plays a whimsical brand of tennis likely to produce any type of shot at any time. But the formula is working. After Tomic's match against Nadal at this year's Australian Open (he had a 4-0 lead in the first set before Nadal could figure him out), noted historian Steve Flink wrote on the Tennis Channel website, "The public 'Down Under' has found a newcomer who can indeed take the future into his hands, a competitor who has the capacity for greatness, an 18-year-old who plays the game distinctively and creatively. His name is Bernard Tomic, and trust me on this: He is going places."
He has gone all the way to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, and he is a secret no more. It's unlikely he'll get past Djokovic, but he has found a proper stage for his most unusual brand of theater.
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I felt sorry for Caroline Wozniacki as she conducted her post-match interview Monday, a sad and dejected figure in the wake of her fourth-round loss to Dominika Cibulkova. Wozniacki never demanded to be the world's No. 1 player, nor has she ever cast an air of superiority. She does feel she earned the ranking by compiling the most formidable set of results on tour, but she has become somewhat resentful -- rightly so -- of the constant flow of skepticism.
"It's not easy when you're being compared to Serena Williams, or the other No. 1s," said Cibulkova. "Caroline never won a Grand Slam, and that's what they ask her all the time: When is she going to win a Grand Slam?"
Wozniacki got a Centre Court assignment for her third-round match on Saturday, but she was out on Court 2, a veritable banishment for a player of her stature, for the loss to Cibulkova. The Dane is a marvel of fitness and defensive tennis, but when things start to go wrong (as they did in this match, with Wozniacki up a set and a break), she doesn't have an alternative strategy. There isn't a hint of ingenuity or variety to her game, and when she comes up against a "zoning" player like Cibulkova -- hitting "all or nothing" forehands, as Wozniacki described it -- she falls short of replies.
Wozniacki had only one really upbeat moment at Wimbledon, the day she snuck into Djokovic's introductory news conference, introduced herself as a reporter from "the Monaco newspaper on Avenue Princess Grace," and asked a bunch of nutty questions. But the glow of her personality faded right along with her game.
"I don't really care what people think or say or do," she said upon departure. "I cannot really do anything now. I did my best and it wasn't good enough. I just need to look forward and go back to the practice court."
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Miscellany: Mardy Fish wasn't thrilled when someone asked him about a recent comment by John McEnroe, suggesting that Andy Roddick's marriage to swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker (in April 2009) has taken an edge off his game. "I know Andy as well as anyone, and I think the marriage is one of the reasons he's still playing," Fish said. "I think what's been said is completely unwarranted. It's not a great comment to talk about wives." ... Granted, John Isner wasn't in the best mood after losing on Court 18 (scene of his 2010 marathon against Nicolas Mahut) to Nicolas Almagro, but when someone asked him if he had any advice for the fast-rising Harrison, he said, "No. He can figure it out." Isner could use a mulligan on that one ... McIlroy told McEnroe and Murray that he likes tennis well enough, even had a court at his house at one time, until priorities took over. "I just turned it into a football pitch," he said ... Serena Williams seemed relatively calm after her loss to Marion Bartoli in the fourth round, but "I'm more devastated than ever," she said. "I'm just a much better actress now." ... Serena was typically tough-minded against Bartoli, fending off four match points before going down. Asked if anything could faze her on a tennis court, she said, "I wouldn't want to face Nadal at the French Open. That would drive me insane."