Is this finally the moment for Andy Murray -- and Great Britain?
WIMBLEDON, England -- Here came the ball. He loaded up this time: If Andy Murray had, just then, cranked the racket back any farther his shoulder would have flopped out of its socket. But if not now, when? This was the time, 7:36 p.m.; this was the place, Centre Court; this was the moment to start sweeping aside all notions of his passivity, his negativity, his nearly-ness. That's what they call the kind who constantly fall short in England, those woulda-coulda-shouldas who promise to win but never do. Well, goes the explanation after all others fail. He's a nearly-man, isn't he? It pretty much ends the conversation.
But now Murray stood poised Wednesday, after the rain delay and the endless "Come on, Andys!" and David Ferrer's relentless attack. Here came the ball, a Ferrer backhand cross-court. It was 5-4 in the deciding fourth-set tiebreak. Murray had read it perfectly, circled wide to set up the forehand. He cracked it clean, an inside-in bullet up the deuce court sideline, and the bleary-eyed crowd, and the TV viewers in Ipswich and Liverpool and Buckingham Palace, and a nation's twittering fingers, all stopped to watch it fly.
That's what it felt like, anyway. Because Murray hasn't been merely a tennis player for a long time, if he ever was. It's not just that a British man hasn't won Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936. It's that England, the inventor of soccer, hasn't won a World Cup since '66 and bombed out again at the recent European Championships, feeding the oddly persistent idea that British guys can't win any of their own games anymore. Never mind that England still wins their share of The Ashes, or the touchy fact that he's Scottish. Murray has become the handiest vessel for Britain's redemption, and once Rafael Nadal -- who'd beaten Murray in the last two Wimbledon semis -- crashed out of his side of the draw last week, the mad British gumbo of optimism and dread that sucked down Roger Taylor, Tim Henman and every other nearly-man with a racket began to boil anew.
"Tennis in the UK is not really a sport that gets followed loads for the rest of the year, but everyone gets into it when Wimbledon comes round because they understand how big a competition it is," Murray said afterward. "I'm trying my best to win the tournament for myself obviously, but also for everybody else."
The ball landed in. Murray bellowed, "YESSS!" Centre Court erupted. Now it was match point. He didn't pause. Down came the ace at 135 miles per hour, his biggest serve of the day, and with the 6-7 (5-7), 7-6 (8-6) 6-4, 7-6 (7-4) win the No. 4 Murray set his Friday semifinal showdown with sixth-ranked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. This will be Murray's fourth straight trip to the Wimbledon semis. He's 25, holds a 5-1 record against Tsonga, and knows this will be his best chance yet to get to the final at last. He also knows the weight on him for the next four days will be immense.
"Whether I don't watch the TV or read anything, there's still a huge amount of pressure there and I know that," Murray said. "You know, subconsciously I'm probably extremely stressed out right now. But I try not to feel it."
It hasn't been easy. Virginia Wade pronounced Murray a "drama queen" during Roland Garros after he won a match while complaining of back spasms, and on the eve of Wimbledon Tommy Haas and Nikolai Davydenko called him out for supposed gamesmanship. "Sometimes he walks on court, he looks tired like he doesn't want to run anymore -- and then he runs like an animal," Davydenko said before their first-round match here. "He has done that his whole career. He's like, 'Ah, I don't want to play any more,' then he starts returning and running and you see his condition is very good. Maybe it is a special Scottish thing."
Maybe, at this point, it's fairer to call it a special Andy thing. Murray destroyed Davydenko last week, dramatically beat Marcos Baghdatis and the Centre Court curfew last Saturday night and danced between raindrops and delays over two days to bounce Marin Cilic in straight sets in the fourth round -- with no dodgy dramatics to speak of. Along with the dispatching of the ever-dangerous Ferrer, all that is enough to make some think that his time to win has come.
"He can learn to utilize his game a lot better, but I think he plays his best here because his regard and respect for the environment brings down his negativity that tends to get the better of him in some of these matches," said Andre Agassi, after watching Murray's match from the Royal Box on Wednesday. "I'd like to see him get a bit more aggressive; he's one of the guys that if he moved a little worse, he'd actually be better -- because he wouldn't rely on it so much. But his arsenal is world class, so he has the ability to play to everybody's standards who's out here. I think he can do it."
In other words, Murray has always been a puzzle. His variably deadly backhand, counterpunching style and dour affect make him an oddly appealing mix of Miroslav Mecir, Martina Hingis and Groundskeeper Willie, and his tendency to use a Swiss Army knife -- mixing up stroke after beautiful stroke -- instead of a sledgehammer can be vexing. He's good enough to be the No. 4 player behind Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer -- and has beaten all of them -- but couldn't win a set in the three major finals he contested.
"You need to have the belief that you're going to do it -- that's the most important thing," Murray said in a quiet moment at last year's U.S. Open, after he became one of the few players in history to make the semifinals in each of the four majors. "If you become desperate, it becomes something that sort of controls you and, even, your happiness. That's not good. I feel fine. I'm aware of how difficult it is to win majors now with the guy at the top, and how consistent they've been.
"If you look at my career purely on Grand Slams right now, I wouldn't be in the same league as a lot of, like, great past players. But making the semis here, that's only the sixth or seventh time that's happened in the Open era. That makes me feel like, OK, the Slams are what I've always wanted, but I'm getting there, I'm improving every year. I've just got to believe that it's going to happen."
Still, believing alone wasn't enough. In January, Murray hired an untested Ivan Lendl as coach, a move that seem to signal a commitment to unleashing an attacking mindset, a competitive aura, that has too often lain dormant. "I don't know Lendl as a coach," Agassi said. "But I love the fact that Murray was showing interest in trying to figure it out and willing to take that chance."
And it paid off. Murray made another semi at the 2012 Australian Open, but the manner of his loss to Djokovic -- coming back from 2-5 down in the fifth set -- seemed a massive step forward. That, as Wednesday showed, he's still capable of veering two steps back, or sideways, makes his run here even more riveting.
"He should be winning by now," said Billie Jean King after Wednesday's match was delayed by rain at 5-5 in the fourth set rain. "He plays defensively and he should be putting the pedal to the metal. And he can do it. That's the thing. But he's got demons, boy."
And they're everywhere. There's the British fans and their desperate need, there's the visions of Djokovic or Federer -- one of his opponents should Murray win Friday -- and all the grand slam trophies they've taken. There's even a tantalizing new avatar in the Miami Heat's LeBron James, whom Murray brought up in his news conference Wednesday.
"There's a lot of people out there that didn't want him to win," Murray said. "There's a lot of people that said he would never win. There's a lot of people who said he never played his best in finals, in the fourth quarter of games he never steps up. Then you see how he played the whole of the Finals, the whole of the playoffs. Sometimes it takes guys a bit longer than others."
Murray didn't need to say it: He wasn't just talking about LeBron, or even himself. Hear that, Britain? The man is singing your song. Sometimes it takes countries, too, a bit longer, but the losing has to end. Doesn't it?