When the clock outside Centre Court struck 1 p.m., we were treated to tableau unseen here in more than 75 years: a British male christening Centre Court for the maiden session of Wimbledon. We speak, of course, of Andy Murray, the defending champion. As he walked across the lawn for his first-round match against Belgium's David Goffin, the crowd rose as one, their applause lapping like waves on the shore.
It was Billie Jean King who said that pressure is a privilege. If that's so, when Murray comes to Wimbledon, he is more overprivileged than Ernests Gulbis. It's a dynamic that no other tennis player faces. Serena Williams might feel extra scrutinized at the U.S. Open, and Gael Monfils might be dissected at the French Open. But they're not the focus of national attention; half the TV sets in the country aren't tuned to their matches; their meals and attire and small acts of heroism don't lead newscasts. Murray in Great Britain? It's Brazil at the World Cup -- If Brazil was one person, and if the World Cup were held every year.
Murray "broke the British curse" last year, beating Novak Djokovic in the 2013 Wimbledon final and becoming an instant shoo-in for knighthood in the process. But the expectations haven't changed. Referencing Britain's disappointment in World Cup, yesterday Murray was asked: "How does it feel to have the hopes of a despondent nation on your shoulders?"
His three-letter answer said it all. "Wow."
But here's the thing of it, as the Brits say. Maybe we have it all wrong. We talk about Murray "shouldering the burden" and "overcoming the pressure." As the BBC put it last year, Murray didn't simply need to subdue seven opponents; he needed to subdue all the expectation. Yet social science says something much different. For as much as we talk about the need for athletes and performances to avoid -- or least reduce -- stress and distractions in order to optimize performance, many more elite athletes need conflict and stress to max out their talent. Might it be that Murray's unique dynamic here is a boon, not a bane?
This is Murray's ninth Wimbledon. His career record is 37-7. As a teenager making his debut, Murray won a pair of matches and nearly knocked off David Nalbandian, ranked No. 19 at the time. Not once at Wimbledon has he lost to a player ranked beneath him. He's won 13 of his last 14 matches here. And in that interim, he returned to the All England Club for the 2012 London Olympics and won the gold medal.
Murray hasn't reached a final -- much less won a title -- since his Wimbledon triumph a year ago. The conventional wisdom is that when he reached the mountaintop there was inevitable letdown. But maybe at the other whistle stops, Murray doesn't have the pressure and competition that enables him to elevate.
With Shaquille O'Neal in the Royal Box -- down in front! -- Murray made quick work of Goffin this afternoon, 6-1. 6-4, 7-5. If it wasn't quite the "brilliant performance" that the gushing BBC would have you believe, it was the kind of authoritative, crisp, drama-free match that augurs well. "All you could ask for," as Murray's new coach, Amelie Mauresmo, put it.
After that Murray offered that he felt more pressure yesterday -- participating in a benefit for the late British player, Elena Baltacha -- than he did today.
Murray was asked about the constant scrutiny today. Of course he was -- it's part of the constant scrutiny. Inadvertently perhaps, he let us in on his secret: "Once the tournament starts, I don't really care, to be honest. I always say the buildup to the tournament is the hardest part. Once the tournament starts, it's fine."
We'd say better than fine.
Five day 1 thoughts
1. It's nice to see Victoria Azarenka back in the business of winning matches, something she hadn't done since the Australian Open. She's far from the peak of her powers, but the two-time Grand Slam champion has reached the semifinals twice here, and her draw can hardly be described as daunting.
2. Sloane Stephens' rap as a Grand Slam player? It took a hit today when she fell in straight sets to Maria Kirilenko. That's a brutal first round opponent, yes. But Stephens should figure out a way to win that match.
3. It's only one match, but -- fresh from his win at Queen's Club -- Grigor Dimitrov looked terrific, beating a game Ryan Harrison today.
4. It's also nice to see Venus Williams win her first match at Wimbledon in three years. A reminder: she is a five-time champion.
5. Ernests Gulbis won his first match, beating the onomatopoeic Jurgen Zopp in straight set. Then he wowed them (us) in the press room:
Q: I don't know if you heard John McEnroe's comments. He would like to get rid of umpires and have players call their own shots. Have you any thoughts of that?
GULBIS: Get rid of vampires?
Q. Have players call their own shots.
GULBIS: I completely agree.
Q. You would agree?
GULBIS: (Nodding head.)
Q. How would it work? Why?
GULBIS: Why? That's his idea. He should explain how it should work.
Q. Why do you agree?
GULBIS: I am for freedom of choice and I am for, let's say, what's on my mind. I want to be able to say it. I don't like when people go for popular decisions and popular answers and everybody is trying to be the nice guy. Not everybody is, you know. So why I need to, sorry to say, get s--- for saying my own opinion. I want to be entitled to it. It's as simple as that. Let's say umpires, not umpires, that's a funny comparison, but there is a lot of people surrounding tennis players who are helping with advice, how to, say, even speak with the press, to behave or that, you know. It breaks down a little bit the personality. So I'm totally for personality. That's it.
Q. You think the majority of players would be able to work in that kind of system, in all honesty say, Okay, it was in or out?
GULBIS: You mean umpires?
GULBIS: My God. Umpires? I thought something else. I thought vampires in the way the people who are surrounding and sucking the energy out of players. That's what I meant. Umpires, no. Without umpires, it wouldn't work. So please delete it. No, umpires. Cannot work without umpires. I thought it was vampires. You know what I mean?
Q. Yes, I understand. So you are disagreeing with McEnroe?
GULBIS: Without umpires, it wouldn't work, no.
Q. What did you say about vampires?
GULBIS: I thought he made an expression. OK, I thought, let's say, in a way that people are surrounded a lot with the people who are their help. Let's say you have now a team of six people. Some of the players, they have press guy, they have physio, they have coach, they have massage therapist, fitness. All these guys, especially let's say, I don't know what the press guy's job is, but they give advices to players.
Q. The media, are they the vampires?
GULBIS: Always trying to get a quote. I'm not going to give you a quote.
I woke up to watch Wimbledon and saw that Sam Stosur had already lost. What's her deal?
-- Doug R., Boston, Mass.
• The quickness of grass undercuts Stosur's two biggest weapons: her kick serve -- it requires a turn signal -- and her wind-up forehand, which a gorgeous shot but one that requires time. Still, I think this falls short. Stosur's athleticism and her handiwork around the net (she was once a top doubles player) ought to be good for a few rounds. As is so often the case, I think it's more mental than anything else. Stosur is one of those players can't fake self-belief and convince herself that she can pull through.
Apart from losing today to Yanina Wickmayer today, Stosur projected strange delusions afterward, professing satisfaction with her level of play, her serve in particular. Well, check out these stats, especially that 7-of-20 second serve points.
I know how much s--- you get for some of your predictions, but good on you for predicting Roger Federer to win Wimbledon. I hope he does win, if only so you can say "called it!"
-- Charlie G. Washington, D.C.
• Hey thanks. For some reason, nothing stirs the trolls like these predictions. A few years ago, I declined to pick Kim Clijsters and got a rip that said something to the effect that my "virulent anti-Belgian bias" was showing. That will tough to beat. Again I quote my -- he loves it when I use this term -- role model, Frank Deford, "Like most sportswriters and, for that matter, like most other people, few of us ever predict sports correctly. It isn't even worth the effort, and you shouldn't pay attention to what anyone predicts, but everybody keeps trying and many people take it seriously."
I know the GOAT debate is not your favorite mailbag topic, and I don't blame you, because it's hard to weigh in when the situation is so dynamic. But I don't know that you can unequivocally say that it will simply come down to who has more Grand Slams. The quality of opponents, quality of wins, Masters results, Olympics results, weeks at number one and head-to-head record against one's chief rival will all go into the cake. In terms of what comes out of the oven, it remains up for debate, but as lifelong Federer fan, I will acknowledge that Rafael Nadal is on the doorstep if not in the front hallway.
-- Stephen B., Toronto
• I don't disagree. But, again I think it comes down to Slams. You can make a compelling case for both right now. (Nadal has the head-to-head supremacy; Federer has more variety in his majors. Nadal will likely win more Masters Series titles. Federer will likely win more year-enders, a referendum on durability.) But majors will rule.