By S.L. Price
July 06, 2012
Andy Murray had lost in the Wimbledon semis in each of the last three years.
Julian Finney/Getty Images

The shot? Stepping in to take that slicing, 117 mile-per-hour serve on match point, cracking it crosscourt and just clipping the sideline's edge? That was the easy part. Andy Murray knew it was good the instant string met ball, knew before anyone else in Great Britain on Friday that he had won and would play Sunday in the 2012 Wimbledon final. He let his racket fall from his hands then, brought balled fists to his eyes. But when he lifted his head, all was confusion.

The chair umpire had announced no winner. Fifteen thousand roaring throats at Centre Court had stopped dead: a linesman's arm had been extended, the ball called out. Murray walked to net, asked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga what he thought. "I really don't know," Tsonga said, grinning. "But I think it's wide."

"I thought it was in," Murray said, and he was right, of course: the replay board showed the ball nick the line as the crowd resumed its happy roar, showed that Murray had beaten Tsonga 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 to become the first British man since Bunny Austin in 1938 to make a final at the All England Club. The two men hugged, and right then you could see the hard part start. Tsonga laughed, clutching the back of Murray's neck, giving it a squeeze as if to console him. Murray frowned, his shoulders bowed. He looked as if, suddenly, a 76-year-old anvil had been placed on his back.

Everyone has grown sick of hearing it, but maybe, just maybe, this will be the last time: the last British man to win Wimbledon was Fred Perry in 1936. When a journalist at his press conference tried to get cute, asking if Perry would bless his possible victory, Murray shook his head and stammered, a picture of perplexity.

"He's not alive, though," he said.

True enough, but Perry's spirit has been haunting British tennis forever, it seems. Now Murray is his nation's best chance yet to put to the old boy to rest but, come Sunday, hyper-local tennis history will be only half the equation. In what will be the perfect finale of a wildly unpredictable fortnight, Roger Federer will walk out with Murray on Sunday afternoon seeking to reclaim his place atop the game.

It has been 2½ years since Federer, 30, won a major and 25 months since Rafael Nadal, and then Novak Djokovic, supplanted him as No. 1. A win Sunday would restore both to Federer, give him a seventh Wimbledon singles title to tie record-holder Pete Sampras and match Sampras' record 286 weeks at No. 1. Not to mention that a 17th Grand Slam title --- and the fact that he crushed a curiously flat Djokovic, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, in Friday's first semifinal -- would silence all talk of a Federer decline, and further cement his stature as the greatest player ever.

All that, in tennis terms anyway, might ease pressure on the No. 4 Murray: Federer is beloved by Wimbledon's members and crowds and, with a 14-1 record in major finals against anyone not named Nadal, will be heavily favored. If Murray is to have any chance, he figures, the Centre Court fancies must lose their reverence and, for the first time ever, treat Federer like something less than the epitome of all they deem right and proper.

"I'm going to need all their help on Sunday because, yeah, it's a massive challenge to win against Roger in the final of a Slam, at Wimbledon," says Murray, who holds an 8-7 head-to-head record against Federer, but lost to him in two of the three major finals he's contested. "I hope that all the crowd is with me. They've helped me out through some tough moments the last couple of matches, and I'll definitely need it again."

They'll be with him, alright -- if he wins. For years, a common joke has been that the Glasgow-born Murray is British when he wins and Scottish when he loses (after Friday's win, the website "AndyMurrayometer" pegged him at 97 percent British). It seems funny, too, until you realize that the Scottish government intends to hold a referendum on independence in 2014. Or notice that the English Football Association has no qualms about hiring a Swede or Italian as national team manager, while the idea of the nation's best -- Scot Alex Ferguson of Manchester United -- taking over is considered absurd.

British tennis seems far less conflicted. Murray himself will compete for Great Britain at the Olympics, and his mother, Judy, has been instrumental in developing Scottish tennis while serving as captain of the British Fed Cup team. Yet, even as the nation watched Murray cruise through Friday's first set, a small fissure appeared. "Come on Murray! Come on English!" bellowed one fan out the stands. After Murray bombed in two aces to go up 4-1, another, more brogued voice shouted, "Come on Andy! Come on Scotland!"

Everyone laughed, sort of, but Murray had the match in hand then. For two sets, in fact, Murray, whose second serve and aggression have been noticeably tweaked this year by new coach Ivan Lendl, had Tsonga on his heels. But there's a reason the streaky and dynamic Frenchman came from two sets down to beat Federer in last year's Wimbledon quarterfinals, is ranked sixth, and is the one current player Andre Agassi would pay to see.

"Jo's a stallion," Agassi said. "He's unpredictable. He can do everything at a moment's notice with the firepower he has, the explosiveness he has, the movement. I love watching him play."

"I'm not the most talented on tour," Tsonga says. "But I like to go to the war."

Just before the third set, Tsonga left the court to "unblock" his back with stretching. He returned transformed. Murray, meanwhile, seemed to shrink as the idea of winning began to sink in. Tsonga broke him early and held on, even after Murray sent him to his hands and knees, at 5-3, 15-all, with a screaming forehand pass -- a tactic Lendl popularized -- to the body. It landed in the most vulnerable of spots. "New balls please!" someone called from the crowd.

But Tsonga returned for the fourth fully charged, instantly recovering one break as the court darkened, fending off break points in the eighth game with big serves, soft volleys and one incredible, inside-in, running forehand. A Murray heartbreak seemed all but fated when he fell behind 4-4, 15-40, but he slowly rebuilt his confidence, nerve and serve, unleashed two killer backhands in the decisive 12th game, and broke Tsonga for good with, for the moment, the biggest forehand Britain has produced in nearly eight decades.

Not that Murray wants to think of it that way. Not yet. "After the match you try to make sure you don't get too excited on the court, never get too high, never get too down," he said. "Maybe in the past I was too up and down. Needed to try and be more stable on the court, not be so emotional. The one thing that I've learned from being around [Lendl] was that ... It wasn't like there was jumping around the locker room with excitement. It was: There's one more match to go. Well done, but let's focus on the next one."

Still, there's no getting around what's at stake. Earlier this year, Murray came to Wimbledon, and sat on the empty Centre Court grass alone. "When I first played here I didn't understand what it was like," he said, "and it still took a few years for me before I understood how important this tournament was to me, how important it is to tennis -- and also to this country."

But actually, no one understands -- not Murray, not the players who failed before him, not the fans. Yes, Brit Virginia Wade won the ladies singles title at Wimbledon in 1977, but that somehow only sharpened the pain; the Fred Perry curse has become such a part of British culture, been taken as a commentary on British manhood, been whined about in the newspapers for so long that it has assumed a life of its own. No one will know how much a burden it was, what it has actually meant, until it's gone. Will there be a national celebration then, like when England won the World Cup in 1966? Will thousands pack Trafalgar Square? Or will it just be the story of one man killing off another one's ghost?

"Maybe it can happen for Andy," said Marian Vajda, Djokovic's coach, on Friday. "He's definitely playing his best tennis on grass. So this is his chance." Then Vajda laughed, again said, "This is his chance" -- and it sounded almost like a threat. Because he knows: Tennis history is full of players, even greats, who came oh-so-close to seizing a career's defining prize. Maybe it happened once, like it did to John McEnroe in Paris in 1984, or twice, like it did to Lendl at Wimbledon in '86 and '87. The game is cruel that way.

On Sunday, two men will walk on court. For one, the chance may never come again.

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