WIMBLEDON, England -- Andy Murray knows the choreography by now. The clock may no longer be adorned with a Rolex logo -- the penalty for declining Olympic sponsorship -- but at the designated time, he takes Centre Court at the All England Club. The fans gather in the stands and on the sloped area that has all but officially been re-christened "Murray Mound" from "Henman Hill." The lower seats are filled with dignitaries, lords and royalty -- literally today, as William and Kate stopped by the All England Club. And a nation inhales.
Still, it's different this week. There are more than a hundred other international events being contested in the London area this week. The venerable BBC flits in and out of the tennis coverage. There are even empty seats at Centre Court.
Most important is that Murray finds himself playing high-stakes matches in Great Britain without being at the gravitational center of the national sports landscape. And as the attention has dispersed, so has the pressure on Murray. We're not at Wimbledon any more, and as he blazes through the Olympic tennis draw, there is no sense that he (all together now) "carries the weight of his homeland." There are other Brits to help shoulder the load. Adding to the ease, after a few nervous days, the U.K. has already won gold medals. So Murray is not further burdened by the task of snapping a drought.
Playing as if he didn't have a care in the world, Murray didn't so much as beat Nicolas Almagro today, he gave him a 59-minute lesson. Those questioning the "will-Andy-win-a-major-one-day" trope isn't an exercise in irrational optimism. The defense could offer today's match as Exhibit A. Murray never let Almagro -- no slouch of a player who hadn't dropped a set here in his first three matches -- into the match. The 6-4, 6-1 score was misleading in its closeness. "From my side of the court I played solid on serve," Murray told a small group of media members afterward, another difference between this week and Wimbledon. "The goal coming into the tournament was [to be on the medal stand]. It's nice to get that opportunity."
The next immediate opportunity will pit him against Novak Djokovic. While the Serb, a winner today over France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, is the higher seed, Murray may well be the favorite. Especially on grass. Especially with the partisan crowd that supports him without burdening.
They'll play the match tomorrow, still another difference between this event and Wimbledon. "Obviously when you're playing Wimbledon, you get the day off," says Murray. "That always helps because you can relax a little bit and get away from it."
Which, of course, is preposterous. He can't get away from it during Wimbledon. He turns on any channel and there's his mug. He buys a sandwich after leaving the court and it's front page news. Even his entourage become celebrities for the tournament, a full fortnight in the most recent case. Every storyline -- his parents' divorce, the Dunblane shootings -- are reheated and re-served.
This week? None of that. Murray is the crowd favorite. If he wins one more match and medals, it's big news. If he wins two more matches, he'll be knighted. But the light isn't as intense, nor is the heat. And that could make all the difference.
• Love it. The players obviously shake the chair umpire's hand after the match. But what about the all the other officials, hunched like football lineman for all those hours, peering to say where the balls land? We'll talk more about this in weeks to come, but I think a lot of strong and innovative ideas have come out of these Olympics.
• A friend of mine tells me that Mardy Fish has the hand-eye coordination and distance off the tee to be a professional golfer -- and, in all seriousness, compete on the senior tour eventually. The word from those who played in the soccer/football games is that Nadal could have been a pro had he chosen. And one of the former Swedes -- I want to say Thomas Johansson -- had pro-level squash skills. But I think we shouldn't restrict to men.
From Serena to Kim Clijsters to Wozniacki, it's easy to see a variety of WTA players succeeding in soccer, field hockey, lacrosse, etc. How about Serena as a fencer?
And the inverse could be a fun contest: What are the
• The one hitch is that the distribution of talent is very uneven. Look at Swiss or Spanish men versus women. Look at Chinese women versus men. Tennis' calendar is cramped as it is. But the obvious play is for the ITF to realize that Davis Cup, as it current exists, is slinking into irrelevance and there must be a way to combine some the successful elements of the Olympics to improve the format.
• As long as it stays between us, after getting a lot of mail about that discussion last week, I reread
I do think, though, that -- by accident of design -- taking this break will help him in the long-haul of the points chase. He gets some extra rest in time for the late summer and fall, a time of year when, historically, he hasn't ben at his best.
• In a word: yes.
• Guinness the beer? Not an Olympic sponsor. For the next ten days it will be known as "Beverage No. 5."
• What is this word "sleep" you invoke?
• Matt Valdez, Fort Collins, Co.: "Maria Sharapova doesn't hold the monopoly on women shrieking in sports as this